O'Brien, Edna 1932–
An Irish novelist, short story writer, playwright, and screen writer, O'Brien is considered a pioneer in exploring the condition of women in a society dominated by men. Coping with loneliness, repression, religious upbringing, and sexual needs, O'Brien's women are their own victims—passive and often ineffective because of emotional entanglements. Critics sometimes imply that her male characters are stereotypical puppets, serving only as props for their female counterparts. O'Brien's focus, however, is not romantic but realistic, confronting the key issues of feminism. Influenced by Joyce, her style is lucid, exhibiting a lyrical quality. Like the works of several of her fellow countrymen, O'Brien's novels have been banned in Ireland. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Johnny I Hardly Knew You], while lapped in lyricism, is full of aggression: an aggression which is taken to its unnatural conclusion when Nora, the narrator, murders the young man she loves…. [Nora] is torn between hatred of the eternally defecting male and a longing for "a fruitful love". "Haven't I always been attending to a him, and dancing attendance upon a him, and being a slave to a him and being trampled on by a him?"
The final violence is not gratuitous: "Frankly, have I not always had a secret desire to kill?" When Hart has an epileptic fit in her bed she revenges herself on all men, especially on her father with his "long shins and his cuttlebone tongue", and knows "the gruesome power of the hand that strikes"…. This vital link between fear and murderousness is well made; but the references on the jacket to Crime and Punishment and Camus's Outsider are ill advised. Edna O'Brien is not in that league.
Yet her writing fascinates. It flows with an undoubted authority, while always teetering on the brink of cliché and absurdity. She can, however, deflect with one effective word her own passionate flow: "I'm going to curse the womb that carried and bore me, and the bottle that gave me suck." It would have been so much more expected to have written "breasts" instead of "bottle"….
The artlessness of her art, and her recurring wryness, are Edna O'Brien's strengths….
Artlessness, however artful, results in sudden flashes of truthfulness of a kind seldom expressed in more cerebral writing…. The novel is episodic, and several of the episodes—Nora seeing the Palio in Siena, Nora foiling an attempted rape, Nora as a green girl with other green girls visiting a newly married friend—could have stood on their own as short stories. Yet Johnny I Hardly Knew You is held together by what has always held Edna O'Brien's writing together: a fluency which celebrates the failure of love, and the belief that "even the blights of love have in them such radiance that they make other happiness pale indeed".
"Hymn to Him," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 15, 1977, p. 849.
[In "Arabian Days"] Miss O'Brien picks her way through the debris of progress and the buildings that are like boxes waiting to be filled with the gifts of the future. She asks her shrewd and interested questions and few are willing to admit that there are, as yet, no answers. The women will not even tell her their dreams, which she asks for after every other inquiry has failed. Miss O'Brien is the only one of them who is not masked, but to anyone who knows her other books, it will seem that this is not a novel situation for her. (p. C9)
Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 27, 1978.
In her novels, O'Brien's mannered, almost curdled, passionate style is usually set off by meticulous honesty. But in [the dozen short stories in The Rose in the Heart] … she rarely has time to get real feelings fully wound up, and the style often oozes into self-parody. The sameness of theme doesn't help, either—mostly about middle-aged, lonely women making fleeting contacts that are never enough…. One story, "Starting," does seem fully warmed, not rushed: a divorcee meets a lovely, companionable, mature man, but can't stand to contemplate all the excitement and suspense of the start of a love affair; she'd rather come in somewhere in the middle, where it's already "as it was with her children, easy and silent and with an unutterable understanding." O'Brien, as anyone who knows her work will tell, is all heart—you can just about wring her out—but here that heart doesn't start pumping on such short notice; still, her fans will welcome this gathering of some previously uncollected favorites. (p. 1380)
Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1978 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), December 15, 1978.
There is a body of opinion that has it that Edna O'Brien is overrated as a writer; that her success is due to the sex and Irish blarney in her work, and that any serious criticism of her books is out of place….
If I am daft enough to put my head on the block again, it is because there really is something about the Edna O'Brien phenomenon that is worth defining.
With the passing of time, her settings have become more sophisticated…. In this collection of classic O'Brien stories … ["A Rose in the Heart"], there is an awareness of death not generally associated with this elegiac but most life-loving author. Graveyards are dwelt on, and the barriers between life and death are thin. In "Ways," the Vermont cemetery "seems integral to the town as if the living and the dead are wedded to one another." In "Baby Blue," the heroine grieves for "all those who were in boxes alone or together above or below ground, all those unable to accept their afflicted selves."
The "afflicted selves," however, who dominate these stories, find solace in earthly delights. Miss O'Brien is like Colette in her pleasured cataloguing of flowers, smells, landscapes, food and drink; these genderless sensualities heal and comfort the ladies whose love lives are awry.
Most of the stories spotlight particular phases in a sexual relationship; sometimes its consummation—"her body flooded open"—more often edgy beginnings or dismal endings. There is a wonderful resilience in the heroines, a readiness to expect Prince Charming....
(The entire section is 646 words.)
When you call a book A Rose in the Heart you are taking a risk, perhaps a brave one; when you subtitle the same book "Love Stories," you may be approaching the territory of the sentimental with a foolhardy lack of regard. It is Edna O'Brien's particular genius to write about subjects which often fall to poor stylists or sloppy thinkers, because the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. No one else writing today achieves what O'Brien does: the exploration of passionate subjects, and a deftness and precision of language accessible in our age most often to the chiefly cerebral, or to the detached.
Her real theme is loss and its effects: diminishment, revenge, reversal, cure. But she is never sentimental because she is never vague. Sentimentality is largely a failure of eyesight…. The lilt of her prose is an Irish legacy…. (p. 1)
Mary Gordon, "Risks of Loving," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), April 8, 1979, pp. 1, 4.