O'Brien, Edna (Vol. 116)
Edna O'Brien 1936–
Irish novelist, short story writer, playwright, nonfiction writer, poet, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of O'Brien's career through 1997. See also Edna O'Brien Short Story Criticism, Edna O'Brien Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 5, 8, 13.
O'Brien's works focus on the lives of women, portraying their yearning for love and acceptance and their inevitable disappointment. O'Brien, who was born and raised in western Ireland, has spent most of her adult life in London. Both Irish village life during the 1940s and 1950s and contemporary urban settings are depicted in O'Brien's fiction. The influence of her Catholic upbringing is apparent in much of her work, even when it is furthest removed from the Irish Catholic milieu of her youth. The pleasure that O'Brien's heroines find in sex, for instance, is often mixed with guilt and shame. Her frank portrayal of female sexuality has drawn both praise and criticism and has caused her books to be banned in her native country. O'Brien's women are often presented as martyrs whose dependence on men leads to unhappiness and tragedy; her male characters are typically drunken, callous, and irresponsible.
O'Brien was born December 15, 1936, in Taumgraney, County Clare, a small, rural, devoutly Catholic village in western Ireland. O'Brien first attended a local national school before continuing her education in a convent. She escaped rural life by attending the Pharmaceutical College of Ireland in Dublin. In 1952, she eloped with Czech-Irish writer Ernest Gebler, with whom she had two sons. They divorced after twelve years of marriage. O'Brien currently lives in London.
O'Brien's first novel, The Country Girls (I960), was an immediate success and begins a trilogy that continues with The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). These books follow two young girls from a convent school in rural Ireland to Dublin and finally to married life in London. Like many of O'Brien's heroines, the girls are thwarted in their search for love, and the last novel ends on a bitter note. August Is a Wicked Month (1965) is similarly desolate. It concerns a vacationing divorced woman who seeks meaning and union with a variety of sexual partners. At the end of the novel, her young son dies during a camping trip, and she is further than ever from finding fulfillment. In Casualties of Peace (1966) O'Brien introduces an element of violence, as the protagonist is killed by her best friend's husband. O'Brien returned to a rural Irish setting for A Pagan Place (1970), and wrote directly about her own youth and Ireland's continuing influence on her in Mother Ireland (1976). The High Road (1988) concerns Anna, a middle-aged, successful Irish writer who is recovering from the ending of a romantic relationship; she travels to a Spanish island, seeking solitude and time for introspection and healing. However, instead of remaining isolated, Anna becomes involved with others on the island, ultimately becoming romantically involved with another woman who then dies. In House of Splendid Isolation (1994), O'Brien departs from her usual subject matter and presents the story of an IRA terrorist who takes as his hostage an elderly woman; the narrative is driven both by the actions of the terrorist and by the personal remembrances of the hostage. O'Brien's short story collections present many of the same settings and themes as her novels. Her stories located in the Irish countryside are narrated by young girls observing their mothers, fathers, and neighbors. The narrators are often confused by the ties and conflicting passions that connect these people. As Lorna Sage observed in a review of Returning (1982): "The tales belong to an era of austerity, intensified by Irish puritanism." O'Brien has also written stories which, like her urban-centered novels, involve older, sophisticated women whose experiences with love and sex have left them disappointed. Praised for their sensitivity and universality, the short stories in Lantern Slides (1990) focus on O'Brien's familiar theme of victimized women who grieve for lost love or struggle to overcome their pasts. Her story "Storm" is frequently cited for its poignant depiction of the quiet suffering experienced by a middle-aged woman recently abandoned by her lover. While vacationing with her son and his girlfriend, the woman grows resentful of the young couple's exclusivity, but only further alienates herself when she vents her anger.
When assessing O'Brien's work, most critics focus on her female characters. Her portrayal of women struggling to escape the role society has assigned them has drawn praise for evoking a full range of emotion in the reader. Due perhaps to her convincing portrayal of rural Ireland in so many of her works, O'Brien has been faulted by critics when she moves away from the influence of her upbringing. Oliver Conant noted: "When O'Brien turns from constrained, personalist Western Ireland to an urban culture of drifting hedonists, in which no one is known to anyone else …, something of her sureness of touch is lost." Many critics have maintained that her writing is most effective when it recreates the Ireland of her childhood. During her prolific literary career, O'Brien has been widely regarded as an artist dedicated to evoking emotions, rather than one who experiments with fictional form. Nevertheless, numerous critics have contended that the distinct style of Lantern Slides is influenced by the Irish Gothic tradition of fable, as well as O'Brien's own childhood in rural Ireland. Thomas Cahill asserted: "[O'Brien] is a storyteller, an Irish storyteller, one of an ancient tradition of storytellers, people who tell the truth. In old Ireland, the words of a truthful poet were both sought and feared: They could kill. Her best work has the sound of something prehistoric—palpable, thrilling, incantatory—about it. It should be read aloud, like poetry. It is, indeed, not prose, at least not in any modern manner."
The Country Girls (novel) 1960
A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers (drama) 1962
The Lonely Girl (novel)1962; also published as The Girl with Green Eyes, 1964
Girls in Their Married Bliss (novel) 1964
August Is a Wicked Month (novel) 1965
Casualties of Peace (novel) 1966
The Love Object (novel) 1968
Three into Two Won't Go (screenplay) 1969
A Pagan Place (novel) 1970
Zee and Company (novel) 1971
Night (novel) 1972
A Pagan Place (drama) 1972
The Gathering (drama) 1974
A Scandalous Woman, and Other Stories (short stories) 1974
Mother Ireland (nonfiction) 1976
Arabian Days (nonfiction) 1977
Johnny I Hardly Knew You (novel) 1977; also published as I Hardly Knew You, 1978
Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
Seven Novels and Other Short Stories (novels and short stories) 1978
I Was Happy Here (screenplay) 1979
A Rose in the Heart (short stories) 1979
The Wicked Lady (screenplay) 1979
A Woman at the Seaside (screenplay) 1979
The Dazzle (juvenilia) 1981
James and Nora: A Portrait of Joyce's Marriage (nonfiction) 1981
Virginia (drama) 1981
A Christmas Treat (juvenilia) 1982
The Expedition (juvenilia) 1982
Returning: Tales (short...
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SOURCE: "Girl Meets Men," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,319, October 7, 1965, p. 893.
[The following is a mixed assessment of August Is a Wicked Month.]
A great deal of nonsense has been written in gossip columns and glossy magazines about Miss O'Brien as a militant spokesman of her sex, voicing in her new novel all the perplexity and private savagery said to be felt by women today. August is a Wicked Month seems, for this if no other reason, all set for a succès de scandale; and it would be foolish to pretend that the author's personality, or the topical titillation of her subject-matter, ought not to influence any so-called literary judgment of the book. Miss O'Brien is a naturally subjective writer, and the fact that her sense of the ridiculous, which in previous novels she allowed to prick the bubble of sentimentalism and soften the bitterness, is this time subdued almost out of sight, means that many readers—probably men more than women—will find the uninhibited exposure of sexual emotion and guilt quite uncomfortable, if not shocking. Ellen, who is an older and sadder Kate, may not be the kind of woman any stable society could content or cushion against the turmoil of her emotions, but her pragmatic honesty and vulnerability do make her peculiarly characteristic of her sex today.
Here, however, the trend comment must stop. To see this novel as part of the...
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SOURCE: "Deadly Chain of Events," in New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1967, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review of Casualties of Peace, Dienstag asserts that O'Brien's "old-fashioned" and clichéd structuring of her novel destroys the effectiveness of her "extraordinary style."]
Willa McCord is dreaming. She is walking down a dark street toward her house when a car with two men in it stops flush beside her. One of the men asks the way to a theater. She gives a quick answer, a lie. They drive off. She rushes to her door, but can't find it. The men return. It is now daylight, and there are witnesses, but it doesn't seem to matter. The men get out of the car, closing in for the kill.
So begins Casualties of Peace, a novel about the violence of ordinary life and the victims of that violence, sometimes innocent strangers, sometimes not. Willa McCord is one of those victims—yet this is not a murder story in the conventional sense. It is about two women, Willa and her resident housekeeper Patsy, their love affairs, disparate lives and desires, and the chance crossing of their paths which leads to the kind of bizarre tragedy one reads about in the tabloids.
Though Patsy and Willa experience extremes of brutality and sex, in other respects they are exact opposites. Willa, a sculptor of glass figures, is neurotic, frail, and fleeing from the after effects of...
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SOURCE: A review of A Pagan Place, in New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1970, pp. 5, 31.
[In the following review, Donoghue maintains that A Pagan Place is an "interesting" and "pleasant" novel, but does not "go deep" enough to merit consideration as a significant work of literature.]
[A Pagan Place] is a novel in the guise of a memoir. An Irish girl, now a nun in Brussels, recalls her childhood, her family, the neighbors, holy and pagan Ireland officially neutral in the years of World War II, a trip to Dublin in search of an erring sister. No occasion is too trivial to be invoked, a nun's dedication to God being apparently compatible with the exercise of an emigrant's total recall. The degree of accuracy is presumably high, though Portarlington is remembered as Port Darlington, and Kinnegad as Kenigad. The heroine is a country girl, but not a peasant. Her parents have some of the marks of decayed gentry, notably an internal lavatory, a social point somewhat confused, however, by the fact that the father relieves himself in the open air. The mother earns some money by selling eggs, but on the other hand the father owns a few horses in training. There are 30 pubs in the village, if a nun's recollections are to be taken literally. As for the plot: the erring sister Emma gets pregnant, the father gets drunk and the intending nun gets seduced.
These events are...
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SOURCE: "Hooligan's Wake," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,683, October 6, 1972, p. 1184.
[In the following review, the critic provides a largely negative assessment of Night, in which O'Brien is faulted for failing to sustain and build on the "strength and honesty" in her writing.]
A grievance and an exasperation to critics they are, those writers who are as bad as possible and yet never let us quite out of their pockets. (Their style is so catching too.) By about page 10 of Night a series of useful phrases were already beginning to line themselves up: … self-indulgent whimsy … formless preciosity … mixture of narcissism and Irishry as before, but with stylistic knobs (or balls) on … gift-wrapped porn for NW1 people … earlier books better … sense of feeling and fun lost … one long act of public literary masturbation.
And yet. "The silences are unnerving. I can hear my own hair splitting." "There is a substance called glutamate added, which casts aspersions on the whole thing." "The artificial tea roses were still there, thick with dust, it was as if they had been plunged in molten dust and were coated in it rather than in some silver or golden dip." In hell "I could see the poor souls rotomating like chickens, as I've seen and watched them in the take-away 'Nosh' place". And in particular whenever Mary Hooligan, the "I" who ruminates through the night...
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SOURCE: A review of Mother Ireland, in The Critic, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Winter, 1976, pp. 72-3.
[In the following review, Broderick offers a highly unfavorable assessment of Mother Ireland.]
It is surely no coincidence that most of the Irish writers who have lived out of the country have felt the urge to write about their relationship with the land of their birth. One thinks of Lady Morgan, a trashy novelist and the Edna O'Brien of her day; Thomas Moore, whose Memoirs in the form of letters and correspondence were edited by Lord John Russell; Sean O'Casey, George Moore, Kate O'Brien, Mary Colum and Oliver Gogarty. I seem to remember that Shaw wrote some pages of autobiography in extreme old age; while Elizabeth Bowen published a history of the Shelbourne Hotel, which was part of her youth. Yeats, who spent a far greater amount of time in England than he liked to admit, reconstructed his childhood and youth in Autobiographies, published in 1926. Joyce was the exception to this rule, as he was to so many others. But then he used everything that happened to him in his books, which are all self-portraits.
One would think that Miss Edna O'Brien would be content with telling her experience in childhood and youth over and over again in her novels. But no such luck. Here she comes again with her version of Ireland, and the effect it had on her development. She tells us in the last...
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SOURCE: "'That Trenchant Childhood Route'?: Quest in Edna O'Brien's Novels," in Éire-Ireland, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 74-83.
[In the following essay, Snow explores the "journey" O'Brien's heroines make "to reclaimed innocence" in her novels.]
At the close of Mother Ireland, Edna O'Brien defines her aim both as a writer and as a woman:
Ireland for me is moments of its history and geography, a few people who embody its strange quality, the features of a face, a holler, a line from a Synge play, the whiff of night air, but Ireland insubstantial like the goddesses poet dream of, who lead them down into strange circles. I live out of Ireland because something in me warns me that I might stop if I lived there, that I might cease to feel what it means to have such a heritage, might grow placid when in fact I want yet again and for indefinable reasons to trace that same route, that trenchant childhood route, in the hope of finding some clue that will, or would, or could, make possible the leap that would restore one to one's original place and state of consciousness, to the radical innocence of the moment just before birth.
Eleven years before the publication in 1976 of Mother Ireland, Miss O'Brien expressed the same desire—less poetically, it is true—in an interview with Nell Dunn [in Talking to...
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SOURCE: "Irish Passions: Women Under the Spell," in The Wall Street Journal, Vol. 204, December 17, 1984, p. 32.
[In the following review, Peters surveys the stories in The Fanatic Heart.]
Reading Edna O'Brien's The Fanatic Heart, an anthology of nearly 20 years of short stories, one sees the same story born again and again, built up into new configurations although the root is the same.
Ms. O'Brien writes from the different turns her passion takes for her native Ireland, the innocence of her Catholic girlhood, and the deep magnetism of sex. They drive the artist back, in memory—force her to return to people and houses and voices she was once overjoyed to quit. Often in adulthood, the female character is an exile—wed to a Protestant, living in England, without custody of her children if divorced. And often she is alone; in the ruins of a love affair.
The stories of abandoned women who try to fend for themselves ("Mrs. Reinhardt" or the brilliantly queasy "Paradise") or who scavenge adulterously on the leavings of other women's marriages ("The Love Object") have the compulsive edge of a woman top much alone, with no purpose except to feel love returned. They are not perhaps the author's best stories; the ones of girlhood where everything is felt with such biting keenness and humor are more pleasing to read. And yet, the various portraits of the older, exiled...
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SOURCE: A review of Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories, in New York Times, March 1, 1987, p. 31.
[In the following review, Binchy offers a favorable assessment of Tales for the Telling.]
Edna O'Brien can tell a good story and she has a great ear for the way people talk.
Up to now the people who have talked in her books have been complicated women, anguished because their expectations were so ill fulfilled, or happy girls, carefree because they didn't yet know what disappointments lay ahead.
Now she has found a new voice, and a whole new range of characters, in the peopled tapestries of Irish folklore, a world where nothing stays the same and where the action is as fast as the waterfalls and rivers that cascade from the hills, and the quick thinking of heroes who are momentarily outsmarted is like mercury.
There are 12 stories in [Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories,] this children's collection. Some are of heroes already known to children even in the United States and to the adults who will read the tales aloud only too willingly. Some are about the famous Finn, leader of the Fianna. some are of beggars, pipers and tricksters not known by name but familiar in their antics. Some of them are moral tales where good is rewarded in a very satisfying way. Take, for example, "The Magic Apples," the story of...
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SOURCE: "The Silly and the Serious: An Assessment of Edna O'Brien," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 474-88.
[In the following essay, Peggy O'Brien explores the psychology behind Edna O'Brien's literary choices and examines the negative critical commentary on her works.]
An intriguing fact about the past reception of Edna O'Brien's work is that American and Irish audiences have been largely at odds, her compatriots tending to be harsh while critics here have lavished praise. She is receiving a great deal of attention now in America, where two collections of her work have been published within the last three years. Her short stories came out in 1984 as The Fanatic Heart and last year the three early novels were gathered together under the title The Country Girls Trilogy, with an epilogue added to tell the fates of her continuous central characters, Kate and Baba. Even if these new editions hadn't prompted fresh attention, O'Brien would be due a retrospective assessment of her writing simply because it now amounts to so much: eight novels, four books of short stories, several plays and screenplays and a work of non-fiction. Much of the disapproval from home has been directed at O'Brien's persona, an outrageous concoction of what foreigners expect an Irish person to be—mellifluous, volatile, wanton, irrational. But more serious artistic reservations underlie...
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SOURCE: "Tough Luck: The Unfortunate Birth of Edna O'Brien," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 216-23.
[In the following essay, Haule examines O'Brien's treatment of birth, infancy, childhood, and motherhood in her works.]
Edna O'Brien's Mother Ireland is a book filled with memories that move starkly between terror and pity as it explains, with the help of the haunting photographs of Fergus Bourke, why Ireland must be left and why Ireland can never be escaped. Her last statement is a remarkable admission of an entrapment at once willing and unwilling, a confession of both victory and defeat:
I live out of Ireland because something in me warns me that I might stop there, that I might cease to feel what it has meant to have such a heritage, might grow placid when in fact I want yet again and for indefinable reasons to trace the same route, the trenchant childhood route, in the hope of finding some clue that will, or would, or could, make the leap that would restore one to one's original place and state of consciousness, to the radical innocence of the moment just before birth.
The entire book, short as it is, clearly demonstrates the extent to which O'Brien's own life has been transformed into the early novels (especially The Country Girls Trilogy) and a number of her short stories (many...
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SOURCE: "A Colony of the Disgruntled," in New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1988, p. 11.
[In the following review, Robinson offers a mixed assessment of The High Road.]
Edna O'Brien is a prolific writer of short stories and novels, noted for the elegance of her prose. The High Road, her second novel in over a decade, is a series of more or less free-standing narratives, framed by opening and concluding scenes that declare certain large themes only developed by contrast or indirection in the intervening narratives.
The language here is often infused with an intense energy, but the form of the novel makes it difficult to know what these energies arise from or tend toward. Most of the stories concern expatriate and vacationing northern Europeans on a Spanish island, while the framing events invoke the earthy primitivity of the island itself, at least as the narrator perceives it.
The narrator, Anna, is a middle-aged, Anglicized Irishwoman, a writer or a scholar who has toured America lecturing on the sorrows of Irish history. She is the sort of person who finds the horses in Central Park more human than the people in the streets of New York. Emotionally destitute, she has sought out this island as a refuge. It is an artists' colony and resort, a place to which the civilized have brought their discontents for so long that the locals, while practiced at...
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SOURCE: "Edna O'Brien's 'The Doll': A Narrative of Abjection," in Notes on Modern Irish Literature, Vol. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 6-11.
[In the following essay, Carriker analyzes O'Brien's "The Doll," in terms of the author's use of the doll as a means of communicating the abjection of the narrator of the story.]
In Edna O'Brien's short story "The Doll," the narrator and the doll stand in an uneasy juxtaposition which is exemplary of Freud's notion of "The Uncanny." The conflict of "The Doll" is centered in the question of the doll's subjectivity, and the story contains what Freud has called "a particularly favorable condition for awakening uncanny feelings." He discusses dolls as a significant element of childhood life, describing how children—like O'Brien's narrator—frequently maintain that their dolls are alive or that they themselves can make the inanimate dolls come to life. In conjunction with Freud's "Uncanny," [Julia] Kristeva's concepts of abjection, dejection, and displacement illuminate the narrator's crisis in "The Doll."
The narrator of "The Doll" is a woman who as a child received a doll each year for Christmas. The behavior of this unnamed child is like that of the children observed by Freud in "The Uncanny" who treat their dolls as living people, making no distinction between the living and the inanimate. For example not only do her dolls have names and living quarters...
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SOURCE: A review of Lantern Slides, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 303-4.
[In the following review, Lanters provides an unfavorable assessment of Lantern Slides.]
Edna O'Brien's outspokenness on the subject of women and sexuality gained her a certain notoriety in Ireland in the early 1960s, when such matters were still considered taboo. Since then, Irish writing has come a long way, although one would hardly gather as much from O'Brien's latest collection of stories. The title Lantern Slides itself is suggestive of former times, although the stories are not overtly set in the past, and the themes are familiar from O'Brien's earlier work: loneliness, madness brought on by jealousy and sexual repression, guilt over strained relations between parents and children, women coping with ending love affairs. At least half the stories, mostly set in rural villages, seem positively nostalgic for the bad old repressive days out of which Irish writers used to get so much mileage, but even those set in modern Dublin have a whiff of mothballs about them, as if the characters in them had somehow mentally remained stuck in an earlier time.
The book's epigraph from Thomas Mann implies that it was O'Brien's intention to depict the human condition rather than specific people in specific places, something which is also suggested in the first story, "'Oft in the Stilly...
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SOURCE: "Bearing the Burden of Love," in Belles Lettres, Fall, 1992, pp. 2-3.
[In the following review, Harris offers a laudatory appraisal of Time and Tide.]
In the prologue of Time and Tide, we learn that the protagonist, Nell, has lost one son to a "watery" death and is terrified that her hastily spoken words have forced a permanent breach with her surviving son. Throughout the rest of Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Nell is dominated by her parents, husband, lovers, and children. She moves from a degrading marriage through a series of damaging love affairs, experiences a terrifying acid trip, suffers a nervous breakdown, loses her mother and her home, and watches her eldest son succumb to drug abuse. Although Nell struggles' through each of these situations, she is never prepared for the next catastrophe, which is all too likely to occur. In the hands of an ordinary writer, this scenario might produce nothing more than a depiction of yet another woman victimized by people, fate, and her own paralysis.
But Edna O'Brien is not an ordinary writer. She is as rare as the exquisite possessions that Nell, at one stage in her life, collects from market stalls and antique shops: "velvet cushions, goblets threaded with gold, cranberry glasses that seemed to have the essence of the fruits secreted within." O'Brien transforms what could have been a depressing or, at best, maudlin tale into...
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SOURCE: "Against Ample Adversities." in Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 1992, p. 23.
[In the following review, Craig provides a mixed evaluation of Time and Tide.]
"Fear death by water." This injunction from The Waste Land must strike a chord with Edna O'Brien, whose earliest heroine—in The Country Girls—lost her mother in a boating accident; now, eleven novels on, it's the heroine's son who goes down with the Marchioness (as we read on the opening page of Time and Tide). This central disaster is prefaced by a lot of subsidiary disasters; the whole drift, of Time and Tide, is to show what a star-crossed Irishwoman can endure, without going under.
What is wrong with Nell, a one-time Irish country girl and mother-of-two? She has many resources, yet seems impelled to get the maximum poignancy out of life. She suffers to the full. Some kind of ancestral acrimony seems to have warped her prospects. At the start of Time and Tide, she is living on the outskirts of London, with two small sons and a terrible husband, the kind of spouse who specializes in mental cruelty, cold as any Casaubon and deeply unhinged. The family farm in Ireland isn't a refuge, containing as it does a virulent old couple—chickens' innards in the kitchen and a sour and restrictive Catholicism pervading the place. Presently Nell is separated from her husband, then...
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SOURCE: "Down & Out in Life," in Commonweal, October 23, 1992, pp. 25-6.
[In the following review, Hosmer offers a commendatory assessment of Time and Tide.]
Like Milton's elegy "Lycidas," Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Time and Tide, is a haunting water poem, a heartfelt elegy engendered by the two most powerful human emotions: love and loss. Only here the waters swirl not just in a mighty river but also within the human amnion, for this is a book about what is likely the most dangerous of human activities: mothering. O'Brien's achievement in Time and Tide is so extraordinary that this eleventh novel may well eclipse the previous ten, even her first, The Country Girls (1960).
Time and Tide is the story of Nell Steadman, a middle-aged woman from the west of Ireland, long resident in London. Nell first appears musing as she tries frantically to prevent her second son's departure from home: "What could she do now to retrieve things. She thought of rushing down the stairs to his bedroom with as normal a manner as artifice can manage and asking, 'Would you like a cup of tea?'" His departure, which she cannot forestall, is the last in a series of painful, unresolved separations. In the course of the narrative, which moves with effortless inferiority from past to present, we learn Nell's story: an early marriage to Walter, an older, tyrannical, and abusive man...
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SOURCE: "Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 317-25.
[In the following essay, O'Hara surveys O'Brien's handling of obsessive love in her short stories.]
I am obsessed quite irrationally by the notion of love …," writes Edna O'Brien. "It's an obsession and I know it's very limiting. At the same time it's what I feel truest and most persistently about, and therefore it's the thing that I have to write about" [Patrick Rafroidi and Maurice Harmon, editors, The Irish Novel in Our Time, Publications de L'Université de Lille III, 1975–76]. And write about it she does—the obsession, that is, perhaps more than the love.
A reading of O'Brien's stories, beginning with the 1969 collection, The Love Object, reveals that several of her characters share their author's obsession with "the notion of love." Yet between these women and their love objects there is so little real connection, so little love. For them, obsession with love seems to stand in the way of its attainment.
That O'Brien's protagonists should find themselves in this bind is perhaps not surprising. Obsession—a "persistent or inescapable preoccupation with an idea or emotion"—seems to involve not only compulsion but insatiability. A person obsessed, whether with an idée fixe or a person, seems...
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SOURCE: "The Terror and the Pity," in The New Republic, June 13, 1994, pp. 52-3.
[In the following review, Lee offers a mixed evaluation of House of Splendid Isolation.]
"The Ireland you're chasing is a dream … doesn't exist anymore…. It's gone. It's with O'Leary in the grave." That's what we're told. The heroes have become terrorist, Queen Maeve is a battered wife, the big house is derelict. As Mary Hooligan says at the end of Edna O'Brien's novel Night (1972), "The harp that once through Tara's halls is silenced, mute." Baba, one of the original "country girls" from the fine Irish trilogy that made O'Brien's name in the 1960s, looks back on the past, twenty-five years later, in a bitter "Epilogue" written in 1987. She savages anything that will tear at her heartstrings as "pure slop": "Too fucking elegiac." Yet Baba ends her retrospect lamenting. "I want time to be put back, I want it to be yesterday." And even Mary Hooligan, long exiled from the "glorified bog" of her birth, calls out, "O Connemara, oh sweet mauve forgotten hills." In House of Splendid Isolation, too, "Romantic Ireland" is far from dead and gone. It's lurking all over the place. Cuchulain rides again, blue eyes blaze once more, legends and ghosts return to haunt us. The past is execrated, but the past is yearned for. The grim realities all have soft centers.
The plot itself makes you feel you...
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SOURCE: "The Terrorist and the Lady," in New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1994, p. 7.
[The following is L'Heureux's generally laudatory review of House of Splendid Isolation, in which he notes some faults in the novel but asserts that O'Brien's "attempt nonetheless merits praise."]
This is a fascinating and disturbing novel—fascinating because it marks a dramatic departure for Edna O'Brien in both subject matter and in style, disturbing because for the first time we see her audacity fall and her elegant prose run badly out of control. Still, where she succeeds, she succeeds handsomely.
In House of Splendid Isolation Ms. O'Brien attempts to isolate and anatomize the human aspects of Irish history. She succeeds, poignantly, when she explores the relationship between an Irish Republican Army terrorist and the elderly Irish woman who is his hostage. They taunt each other, they fight and in time they achieve a tentative equilibrium. We come to know the mixed motives, the blind passions and the inability of terrorist and bystander alike to understand where these passions lead and how they can be controlled. As we observe their struggle, hear the old arguments that justify their positions, see them—in their new proximity—accommodate to each other for convenience's sake and then for charity, we feel that for the moment we are looking deep into the conflicted mind and...
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SOURCE: "The Widow and the Terrorist," in The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 1994, p. A 11.
[In the following review, Bawer offers a largely positive assessment of House of Splendid Isolation, but notes some stylistic weaknesses.]
Since the appearance of her first novel, The Country Girls, in I960. Edna O'Brien has won fame as a passionate, lyrical prose stylist and a sensitive observer of long-suffering Irishwomen and their barbaric husbands. Her 13th novel, House of Splendid Isolation, centers on a paradigmatic O'Brien heroine a reclusive old widow named Josie O'Meara who lives among "listless fields" on the outskirts of a village.
Yet this book marks a departure for Ms. O'Brien. For she's taken this "women's novel" protagonist and placed her in a story right out of a high-concept male-targeted movie thriller. McGreevy, an Irish Republican Army terrorist who's wanted for murders and bombings and tagged by police as a "madman," moves in on Josie, using her house as a hideout.
Yes, it's that old Hollywood gimmick, the plot about the stressful relationship between a fugitive and the person or persons whose home he's invaded. If you were pitching the story to a studio executive, you'd describe it as The Desperate Hours meets The Crying Game—or maybe The Petrified Forest meets In the Name of the Father.
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SOURCE: "Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 185-97.
[In the following essay, Shumaker explores O'Brien's and Mary Lavin's use of martyred. Madonna-inspired women characters in their stories.]
Edna O'Brien's "A Scandalous Woman" (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is "a land of strange, sacrificial women." Like O'Brien, Mary Lavin features sacrificial women in her short stories. The disturbing martyrdoms of the heroines created by both writers stem, in part, from Catholic notions of the Madonna. The two writers criticize their heroines' emulations of the suffering Virgin. Julia Kristeva's "Stabat Mater" (1977) and Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) scrutinize the impact of the Madonna myth on western European women. Their feminist scholarship illuminates short stories such as Lavin's "A Nun's Mother" (1944) and "Sarah" (1943), as well as O'Brien's "Sister Imelda" (1981) and "A Scandalous Woman." In each story, female martyrdom (en)gendered by the Madonna myth takes different forms, from becoming a nun to becoming a wife, mother, or "fallen woman."
Kristeva comments upon the fluidity of the Madonna, who encompasses diverse female roles, as do the Irish female characters who emulate her. Discussing the dimensions of the...
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SOURCE: "Edna O'Brien's 'Lantern Slides' and Joyce's 'The Dead': Shadows of a Bygone Era," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 437-46.
[In the following essay, Pearce examines similarities between the works of O'Brien and James Joyce, in particular focusing upon O'Brien's "Lantern Slides," which Pearce characterizes as a "feminist rewriting" of Joyce's "The Dead."]
In 1974, Grace Eckley noted [in her Edna O'Brien] the similarities between James Joyce and then-emerging Irish talent, Edna O'Brien. Eckley specifically cites O'Brien's "Irish Revel" as "a West of Ireland version of Joyce's classic, 'The Dead,'" comparing the blanketing snow of Joyce's meta-phoric ending to the frost that comes "like the descent of winter on Mary's heart" at the end of the O'Brien story. O'Brien's diction and rhythm clearly bestow homage on Joyce: "Frost was general all over Ireland: frost like a weird blossom on the branches, on the river-bank from which Long John Salmon leaped in his great, hairy nakedness, on the ploughs left out all winter; frost on the stony fields, on all the slime and ugliness of the world" (in The Love Object). The title story of O'Brien's latest collection Lantern Slides places O'Brien even more securely within the Joycean sphere, for now setting has moved east to Dublin. Gone is the lush Irish countryside; gone are the proper Connor girls; gone are Cait...
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SOURCE: "Saved from Drowning," in New York Times Book Review, May 25. 1997, p. 11.
[In the following review, Mantel offers a favorable assessment of Down by the River, but faults O'Brien for what she perceives as overly pedantic, elaborate prose and a tendency to exhaustively reiterate issues.]
Out in the country things get very murky," says Mary, the protagonist of Down by the River, Edna O'Brien's forlorn, unsparing and consciously exquisite novel of rural despair. Ireland is Ms. O'Brien's mother country, and mothers, as we know, are often capricious, often rejecting, often unwilling to mother at all. Mary is about to be a mother and unwilling to be so: because she is not quite 14 years old, and because the baby is the product of incest with her father.
Mary's own mother has died a premature and painful death; the child has nowhere to turn. She is unable to tell anyone of her plight, though she tries to signal it. She also tries to drown herself, but is prevented by a neighbor out walking her dog. The neighbor, Betty, arranges for them to travel to England, where she can obtain a legal abortion. Before it can take place, Mary is pressured into returning to Ireland. There she is passed from hand to hand. Opponents of abortion offer compassion for the child but little for the mother. She receives the conscience-dogged sympathy of quivering liberals, the quizzical and...
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SOURCE: "Obsession," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 8, 1997, p. 6.
[In the following review, Innes offers a positive appraisal of Down by the River.]
When I was asked to review Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Down by the River, I called my sister in London. I wanted to know if she was still reading this prolific and seminal Irish writer who was so important to us 20 years ago. Newly arrived in London from a small town, we related heavily to Kate and Baba, the mismatched Irish friends of The Country Girls trilogy, O'Brien's first fictional work, for whom England's capital represented freedom from the bigotry of rural Irish life. Now, my sister confessed, she's come to reject O'Brien's deep fatalism about intimacy as "unbelievably depressing." And she hates the way O'Brien's women see themselves: "They're always victims."
Some things never change: The women in Down by the River are still victims. But I'm going to have to tell my sister that our old favorite is venturing into new literary territory—realist fiction rooted in contemporary Irish affairs.
Ireland's troubles are not totally absent from O'Brien's work. House of Splendid Isolation features an Irish Republican Army terrorist hiding out in a widow's house. But in most of her work, political strife tends to be more the background music to her characters' personal musings. In...
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Craig, Patricia. Review of Tales for the Telling, by Edna O'Brien. Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,371 (9 January 1987): 46.
Provides a synopsis of the stories in Tales for the Telling, which Craig calls "a lively collection."
Jaffee, Annette Williams. Review of The High Road, by Edna O'Brien. Ms. XVII, No. 5 (November 1988): 76-8.
Highly laudatory assessment of The High Road
Osborne, Linda Barrett. "Two Hostages to An Ancient Feud." Washington Post Book World XXIV, No. 34 (21 August 1994): 3.
Positive review of House of Splendid Isolation, which Osborne characterizes as "a moving portrait of the continuing drama that is Ireland."
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