Time and Tide Essay - Critical Essays

Edna O’Brien

Time and Tide

Despite devoting her creative career to charting the emotional vicissitudes of womanhood, Edna O’Brien has never directly confronted the emotional and psychological challenges of one of women’s best-known and most difficult contexts. There have been mothers in O’Brien’s fiction prior to TIME AND TIDE, but the novelist has never focussed exclusively on the diversity of motherhood as a theme in its own right. And it is on the condition itself and its inevitable ups and downs which this novel dwells. Try as she might, O’Brien’s protagonist cannot escape her maternal fate.

The protagonist in question is Nell Steadman, mother of Patrick and Tristan. She is a successful author and editor, but the narrative ignores this aspect of her life, for the most part. Instead, the story’s interest resides in the detailed elaboration of Nell’s life as a single parent. Like a number of O’Brien’s most successfully drawn protagonists, Nell has Irish origins, and her relationship with her mother provides the theme with a certain necessary ballast, as well as some of the novel’s most confident and attentive writing. This fraught and ambivalent nature of Nell’s relationship with her cultural and biological origins informs the more intimate relationships which Nell has with her sons, and which form the core of the story.

After many difficulties, there seems the possibility of harmony and emotional fulfillment within Nell’s three-member family circle. This is not to be, however, and in the novel’s most sustained and affecting sequence the tragic undertow of mothering is brought to the fore. The fluidity with which Edna O’Brien presents the emotional complexity of motherhood makes TIME AND TIDE one of her most ambitious and resourceful novels.

Sources for Further Study

Belles Lettres. VIII, Fall, 1992, p. 2.

Chicago Tribune. May 3, 1992, XIV, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXIX, October 23, 1992, p. 25.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 14, 1992, p. 13.

The Nation. CCLV, July 13, 1992, p. 60.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, May 17, 1992, p. 12.

Newsweek. CXIX, June 8, 1992, p. 58.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 18, 1992, p. 23.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 10, 1992, p. 4.