Time and Tide

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Edna O’Brien’s tenth novel is among her most ambitious. In the case of this writer, such a statement amounts to a large claim, since in various ways her work has been marked continually by artistic ambition. Its presence is expressed by the thematic daring of her early fiction and, as her career matured, by the successive formal innovations of each of her longer works of fiction, such as the recasting of material from her early novels in A Pagan Place (1970) and the novel-length monologue Night (1972). O’Brien’s reputation as a celebrant of emotional vagaries, particularly those of her female protagonists, has tended to overshadow the calculated artistic energy that goes into the composition of her work.

Her novels continue to be distinguished, like most Irish fiction, by studies of character. O’Brien’s ambition can also be detected in the sequence of studies she has made of women in various stages of their lives, at home in Ireland as young girls, estranged from their native background, as isolated single women in the challenging environment of English—and particularly London—society, and as women traveling alone. Time and Tide contains accounts of all these feminine conditions. The accounts are bound together in the protagonist’s overriding experience of motherhood. Instead of experimenting with narrative form and voice, Time and Tide is somewhat traditional in shape, a family saga of sorts. Such an approach is another new departure for O’Brien. It is in this sense, as well as its treatment of the tidal effects of time, the ebb and flow of past into present and the marks left by that restless activity, that this novel’s ambition strikes the reader.

There are two references to Leo Tolstoy’s celebrated novel of family life in Time and Tide. Although it would be foolhardy to evaluate Edna O’Brien’s ambition in the light of Tolstoy’s accomplishment, particularly since these references are not the only literary ones that Time and Tide contains, to draw attention to one brief but well-known statement in Anna Karenina does not seem entirely out of place. The opening sentence of Tolstoy’s novel makes a statement to the effect that all happy families are alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in a unique fashion. Much of what O’Brien wishes to address in Time and Tide derives from a reading of this statement. The focus in Time and Tide is on the distinctive unhappiness of the protagonist, Nell Steadman. Typical of the tight focus in which she is presented, it is some time before the reader learns her surname, and even then it is the married form that is revealed, a form that evokes the initial framework of her unhappiness.

Such an act of exclusive concentration is not new in O’Brien’s fiction. Many of her earlier novels have dwelled to the point of virtual claustrophobia on the emotional travail of a single woman. The woman in question generally is estranged from family, background, lovers, and society at large, without being able to shed her awareness or her memories of them. Thrown back on the resources of her inner strengths, the representative O’Brien woman undergoes bouts of severe psychic and cultural disorientation that have the effect of making her a dubious and hard-won attainment. The trajectory of the typical plot of an O’Brien novel expresses with increasing clarity the author’s awareness of the costs her protagonists are obliged to pay in order to inhabit their womanhood. The making of a life and the establishment of a place in which that life can be lived adequately are introduced as the media through which psychic and emotional cost inevitably is exacted and, for the most part, successfully paid. Edna O’Brien’s fiction does not constitute a library of women’s liberation. On the other hand, it is fascinating to observe how her fiction renegotiates so many of the fictional stereotypes of women.

In Time and Tide, emotional exploitation and estrangement, aligned with cultural insecurities and social remoteness, again provide the narrative structure. Nell, a native of rural Ireland, makes an unsuitable marriage to a nameless Englishman, being pregnant with her first child, Paddy. A second son, Tristan, follows, but the marriage begins to go wrong shortly afterward. Before long, there are dreadful scenes, conspicuous acts of mental cruelty by the husband, custody battles, and many other familiar scenes of marital breakup. Familiar as these scenes are, however, they gain additional force if it is borne in mind that the woman in the case is Irish. Therefore, though she is not necessarily a stranger to emotional cruelty, the condition of having to create a home without a husband is one for which she has had no moral precedent or instruction. O’Brien does not confront the novelty of Nell’s situation...

(The entire section is 1997 words.)