An author of more than twenty books, stage plays, teleplays, and screenplays for juveniles and adults, Edna O’Brien is a recipient of the Kingsley Amis Award (1962), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (1990), and an honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Born in a small Irish village, educated in a convent, local schools, and a Dublin college, and evaluated by the Irish Times “as one of our bravest and best novelists,” O’Brien lived in London, raising two sons and writing until 1986, when she moved to New York to teach creative writing at a city college.
The title of the novel is borrowed from Emily Brontë: “[F]ifteen wild Decembers/ From those brown hills have melted into spring—/ Faithful indeed is the spirit that remembers.” It is used as a motto. How perfectly guiding it is, one realizes after reading a short, poignant prologue painting the wild and ominous beauty of the Irish mountains, scant in arable land and pasture. That is the home the Irish love with passion, some with a survival instinct and greed beyond tolerance, the collective memory of the potato famine still present in their psyche together with the fear of its return. That fear is, O’Brien shows, their real enemy that
[c]an come at any hour, . . . because the enemy is always there . . . locked in a tribal hunger that bubbles in the blood . . . waiting to rise again . . . to pit neighbour against neighbour . . . in the crazed and phantom lust for a lip of land.
O’Brien’s Wild Decembers confirms her already notorious expertise in the themes Irish, human, and universal, as well as her skill in dissecting all stages of love. Like life itself, her themes are both simple and complex: the basic questions of existence raised by the human mind and literature since the beginning of time. Like William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and all those who understand the laws of nature and human behavior, O’Brien shows how those eternal questions live in the actions and lives of real people, the characters of her novel.
The bipolarity in nature constantly generates conflicts that people have to resolve within themselves—-and with others. The flaws in human nature may turn a conflict into a tragedy on a personal, micro level or escalate into feuds between families. Wild Decembers is about the meaning of life and death, love and hate, war and peace. It is about the strife between the old and new, good and evil, ignorance and enlightenment, courage and fear, and much more. O’Brien’s main characters are survivors, but their values and life philosophies vary, and that naturally polarizes them. Some of them will show love and acceptance, readily embracing the new and different. Others will be nourished on hate and prejudice, too narrow-minded to recognize a messiah bringing a better life for all. They opt to see evil when they cannot fathom the content.
The first chapter introduces the major protagonists: Mick Bugler, nicknamed “the Shepherd,” a settler from Australia who inherited the mountain land in the small community of Cloontha; Joseph Brennan, a native, who has always lived on this land, just like his predecessors—a staunch bachelor, devoted to alcohol and stories of old family feuds; Breege, his sister, a young, beautiful woman with the purity and freshness of a mountain spring—a nurturer, completely dedicated to her brother. When the Brennans meet the newcomer, he is riding a tractor, the first seen in these God-forgotten quarters. Both the rider and his machine (like any novelty) arouse excitement and bonding. For a while, a friendship between these three neighbors is budding. In Breege, it starts as fascination and steadily grows into love. In Joseph, a small conflict turns into a feud, supported by his narrow vision of reality and his tendency toward fear and hatred. The conflict is further enhanced by the individual vendettas of other neighbors, creating a cumulative effect aimed at a total destruction of the unwanted intruder.
Crock, the community gossip, a villain of Iago’s magnitude—maimed by nature at birth, a hater of the world for his own ugliness and vengeful of all lovers for a humiliating memory in his childhood—secretly starts spinning an entangling web of lies. His secret lust for the innocent Breege fixates his revenge on the Shepherd, the handsome object of Breege’s affection. Rita and Reena, two local infamous sorceress-seductress-sisters, further fan the flames of hatred. They abuse the Shepherd’s trust and fulfill their lust upon his body, boasting of the victory.
In spite of these adversities, the industrious Shepherd enthusiastically continues to develop his land using modern technology. Meanwhile, Joseph—blinded by alcohol and enraged by malicious...
(The entire section is 1960 words.)