Down by the River (Magill Book Reviews)
In her first novel, THE COUNTRY GIRLS (1960), Edna O’Brien attacked the way Irish women are treated in a male-dominated society. In DOWN BY THE RIVER, however, O’Brien makes it clear that women can be just as vicious as men when other women defy the rules.
Mary MacNamara, the young protagonist of DOWN BY THE RIVER, is not a born rebel. After her father James rapes her, she wants only to get away from him. Unfortunately, when her mother Bridget dies, Mary has to leave the convent boarding school where she found sanctuary. Unable to remain at home, Mary flees to Galway and is taken in by a kind-hearted musician, Luke. However, the law recognizes her father’s authority over her, locates her, and sends her back home. When she tells James that she is pregnant, he attacks her brutally, and she decides to drown herself.
Mary is rescued by a neighbor, Betty Crowe, and taken to England, where the pregnancy can legally be terminated. However, a local anti-abortionist finds out, and Mary is hurried back to Ireland, where she is placed in a mental institution, then turned over to a set of cold-hearted fanatics, led by the famous Roisin, who are determined to save the unborn child.
Meanwhile, despite private misgivings, politicians and judges join in the crusade. The liberals aid Mary, but James avoids prosecution for his crime by cooperating with the authorities. While Mary is awaiting the verdict in her case, she infuriates her captors...
(The entire section is 392 words.)
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Down by the River (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Down by the River is loosely based on an incident that occurred in 1992 involving a fourteen-year-old girl, pregnant, it was thought, as the result of rape. Yet Edna O’Brien’s novel is much more than merely a topical novel. For almost four decades, O’Brien has been writing fiction set in her native Ireland in an effort to voice the desperation of women she sees as repressed by their church and by a church-dominated state. Because the author insisted that, instead of merely acting as incubators, Irish women should be free to express their own sexuality, her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), was banned in Ireland and burned in her own village, and later books met with similar hostility. Nevertheless, O’Brien has continued her efforts to call attention to the plight of the women of Ireland and, by extension, of all women who suffer because of their gender.
Like the protagonist of the title story in O’Brien’s collection A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories (1974), most of O’Brien’s heroines are trapped between their own appetites and the strictures of society. Thus they do have at least a minimal choice concerning the direction of their lives. However, the protagonist of Down by the River, Mary MacNamara, does not make a conscious decision concerning her future. When her father, James MacNamara, begins to fondle her, Mary tries desperately to pull away from him and then, when he forces himself upon her,...
(The entire section is 2040 words.)