After moving to London from Dublin, Ireland, in 1959, Edna O’Brien published at a furious pace, mining her early experiences in Ireland and then as a single parent with two sons to rear in England. There was something of a lull in her long fiction, however, from 1977 to 1986. Nearly always from a female narrator’s point of view, O’Brien has brilliantly transmuted her personal experiences into art. Her recall and selection of the tiny details that make up the texture of life, particularly in her Irish scenes (The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, A Pagan Place) are most dazzling. Impressive, too, is her evident love and savoring of words—sometimes clearly in a fashion reminiscent of James Joyce—for their own sake, and often in good dialogue. Perhaps because of the speed with which she works, the vivacity and brilliance of her prolific output is frequently marred by awkward grammar, punctuation, and syntax. Apparently, her editors have felt these stylistic lapses are all part of her Irish use of the language and have accordingly let them stand.
O’Brien was a feminist before the term became fashionable, but her works also affirm a wider humanistic sympathy for all people. Early, she took up the topics of women’s attitudes toward their bodies, their sexuality, and their roles as mothers and daughters. In Ireland, several of her books have been banned because of their negative commentary on the Roman Catholic Church, more common in her early work, and her frequent use of graphic sexual terms and scenes. Outside Ireland, O’Brien’s reputation as a writer of fiction seems assured, although reviewer Marianne Wiggins, writing in The Nation, observed that “to the English [she is] a minor self-promoting legend.” Despite conflicting critical responses to her work, O’Brien has received numerous awards, including the Kingsley Amis Award in 1962, the Yorkshire Post Award in 1970 for A Pagan Place, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990 for Lantern Slides and again in 1992 for Time and Tide, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s Prize for Fiction in 1993, and the European Prize for Literature in 1995; the last of these was presented to O’Brien in tribute to her entire oeuvre.