Edna O'Brien Essay - O'Brien, Edna (Vol. 8)

O'Brien, Edna (Vol. 8)

O'Brien, Edna 1932–

An Irish novelist and short story writer, O'Brien uses the material from her rigid Catholic upbringing for her fiction which examines the man/woman question in her native country. Because of her frank portrayal of human sexuality, many of O'Brien's works are still banned in Ireland. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Edna O'Brien's stories of the past decade [depict] … characters [who] are in and of the modern world. Its rootless alien nature at once defines her protagonists and thrusts them into limbo. They are threatened by madness because they can find no enduring place in that world, and they have no values of an older time to fall back upon. They have been deceived by the possibilities of love, and life holds no other meaning. They are immersed in contemporaneity and consequently as uncomfortable and rudderless as Kafka's faceless men. The range of experience is narrow but deep, and one perceives the control and power of "The Love Object" and such later stories as "Over," "A Journey," and "The House of My Dreams"…. Miss O'Brien tells her stories through a viewpoint character who is always female,… [and] lets her viewpoint character (who is often engaged in a monologue) bore still deeper into the meaning of her experience until that meaning has been wrung from it. (In these first-person narratives Miss O'Brien renders her "imitation of a speaking voice engaged in the telling of a tale." This technique stands at the center of Irish fiction, as Thomas Kilroy has insisted. "It is a voice heard over and over again, whatever its accent, a voice with a supreme confidence in its own histrionics, one that assumes with its audience a shared ownership of the told tale and all that this implies.")

"The House of My Dreams" is an instance of Miss O'Brien's writing at the top of her form…. [The] author has forged a distinctive style and voice and has gotten out from under Joyce, O'Flaherty, and O'Connor as Mary Lavin did before her in an entirely different way. Edna O'Brien's stories are superb examples of what Garfitt has observed: "Recent Irish fiction has a distinctly individual focus, centring on a single articulate person, questioning existence among others who are less bothered, or too busy to care." (pp. iv, vi)

George Core, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1976 by The University of the South), Winter, 1976.

The best things in this rather insubstantial book [Mother Ireland] are the banal yet magical moments of childhood, 'the passionate transitory' in Patrick Kavanagh's phrase…. Miss O'Brien writes as arrestingly as ever…. And there are flashes of poignancy that recall her early novels, as when she waits hopelessly on O'Connell Bridge for a fellow who jilted her, while 'the neon with a different gaudy light for each digit announced and re-announced the word BOVRIL'. But there is something premature and factitious about the whole exercise. It might have been a good idea to wait a while longer before giving us the really considered autobiography which may yet be her masterpiece. (p. 747)

Derek Mahon, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 4, 1976.

There is a point of artistry at which the most commonplace circumstances or experiences can crystallise to a kind of super-ordinariness—this is what happens in the stories of Edna O'Brien when she is at her best. She has created characters who are mildly fatalistic: saturated at school in a vulgar Catholicism, their motivations nonetheless are innocently profane. There is a vapid, undirected element in their behaviour, a rural expectancy tempered with underlying stoicism. The life they have to contend with most often is brutal and depressed, and it is to the author's credit that these qualities are conveyed in a style which partakes of neither. Authenticity and restraint are her novels' most valuable characteristics.

Whether imagined or transcribed the childhood evocations of Edna O'Brien are as particular and astringent as Seamus Heaney's, as disabused as those of Patrick Kavanagh. There is some overlapping of fact and fiction of course: episodes that have found their way into the novels are repeated in Mother Ireland, but these gain a new sharpness and interest from the context of reminiscence….

Edna O'Brien's prose is sometimes idiosyncratic but always delicately pitched. [In Mother Ireland], the style can be faulted only in the opening chapter where certain words and phrases from old school history books are not properly assimilated with the text. The result is an uncharacteristic feyness…. But the old lesson books are a part of every Irish child's experience: they are charged with associations that are valid for the author's purpose. Since the history of Ireland is compressed into seventeen pages, only its most picturesque elements can be cited…. The dangers of 'personal' writing, laxity, disorganisation, self-indulgence, are avoided here through the author's sense of the particular and her refusal to prettify or speculate. True, the structure is informal and the sequence of episodes sometimes inconsequential—but these minor defects may have arisen spontaneously from the subject-matter. Ireland, after all, cannot be pinned down: traditionally it defies order, resists classification. (p. 76)

Mother Ireland may be unique in the genre, for its avoidance of nostalgia, its disenchantment. Edna O'Brien's Ireland is not inviting or imposing but it is impressive. The book should be read for its honesty and perceptiveness. (pp. 76-7)

Patricia Craig, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Patricia Craig 1976; reprinted with permission), July, 1976.

In "Mother Ireland" Miss O'Brien has been set down to do a brief evocation of her childhood and her country, to go with some splendid photographs by Fergus Bourke. The effort is forced and full of pain and anger. To get through it she puts on her pub Irish, her brogue, her stock irony. She is an artist in hiding; flashes of her come out in a marvelous phrase, a fragment of a portrait, a moment of atmosphere so perfect it is like a Last Judgment; but most of the book is a mask.

"Mother Ireland" rambles in and around six chapter headings. "The Land Itself" is a mixture of history and overview. It has some well-phrased observations….

But most of the history is written in mock-grandiloquent phrases such as "on the morrow," or "they murthered, spoilt, burnt and laid low."… Why does the author wrap herself in the language of five centuries of written and oral Irish history? Why doesn't she speak to us?…

There are … good moments. There is the teacher who wrote out words such as "intenerate" (to make tender). When the children asked what they meant, she would point to the dictionary and command: "Forage, forage." At the end of the day the children vanished noisily and "we would leave behind us oak desks littered with books and jotters and a teacher suddenly quiet, opaque, staring, possibly wondering what she might do for the remainder of the day without the annoyance and companionship of us."

This kind of thing comes intermittently. When she abandons her mock-heroic re-creation of Irish history Miss O'Brien tells of her childhood and her young life in Dublin in stock incidents….

Experience, maybe particularly in Ireland, folds into a stereotyped mold. But Miss O'Brien's tendency is to present it on the stereotypical level instead of bringing the life out of it. She holds her memories up and dangles them and plays them for what they are most easily worth: she keeps them well away from herself.

It is a necklace without a string. Miss O'Brien does not inhabit her memories, she writes at them. There is no remembering, only elaboration. Perhaps she should have waited. In a decade or two the bitterness might still be there but she might have been able to distill and present it without disguise.

As it is, the title, "Mother Ireland," is her private curse arrayed as a joke: it goes right back to James Joyce calling Ireland the sow that eats her farrow. The author has escaped eating but not scarring. (p. 6)

Richard Eder, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1976.