Edna O'Brien O'Brien, Edna (Vol. 116) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edna O'Brien 1936–

Irish novelist, short story writer, playwright, nonfiction writer, poet, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of O'Brien's career through 1997. See also Edna O'Brien Short Story Criticism, Edna O'Brien Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 5, 8, 13.

O'Brien's works focus on the lives of women, portraying their yearning for love and acceptance and their inevitable disappointment. O'Brien, who was born and raised in western Ireland, has spent most of her adult life in London. Both Irish village life during the 1940s and 1950s and contemporary urban settings are depicted in O'Brien's fiction. The influence of her Catholic upbringing is apparent in much of her work, even when it is furthest removed from the Irish Catholic milieu of her youth. The pleasure that O'Brien's heroines find in sex, for instance, is often mixed with guilt and shame. Her frank portrayal of female sexuality has drawn both praise and criticism and has caused her books to be banned in her native country. O'Brien's women are often presented as martyrs whose dependence on men leads to unhappiness and tragedy; her male characters are typically drunken, callous, and irresponsible.

Biographical Information

O'Brien was born December 15, 1936, in Taumgraney, County Clare, a small, rural, devoutly Catholic village in western Ireland. O'Brien first attended a local national school before continuing her education in a convent. She escaped rural life by attending the Pharmaceutical College of Ireland in Dublin. In 1952, she eloped with Czech-Irish writer Ernest Gebler, with whom she had two sons. They divorced after twelve years of marriage. O'Brien currently lives in London.

Major Works

O'Brien's first novel, The Country Girls (I960), was an immediate success and begins a trilogy that continues with The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). These books follow two young girls from a convent school in rural Ireland to Dublin and finally to married life in London. Like many of O'Brien's heroines, the girls are thwarted in their search for love, and the last novel ends on a bitter note. August Is a Wicked Month (1965) is similarly desolate. It concerns a vacationing divorced woman who seeks meaning and union with a variety of sexual partners. At the end of the novel, her young son dies during a camping trip, and she is further than ever from finding fulfillment. In Casualties of Peace (1966) O'Brien introduces an element of violence, as the protagonist is killed by her best friend's husband. O'Brien returned to a rural Irish setting for A Pagan Place (1970), and wrote directly about her own youth and Ireland's continuing influence on her in Mother Ireland (1976). The High Road (1988) concerns Anna, a middle-aged, successful Irish writer who is recovering from the ending of a romantic relationship; she travels to a Spanish island, seeking solitude and time for introspection and healing. However, instead of remaining isolated, Anna becomes involved with others on the island, ultimately becoming romantically involved with another woman who then dies. In House of Splendid Isolation (1994), O'Brien departs from her usual subject matter and presents the story of an IRA terrorist who takes as his hostage an elderly woman; the narrative is driven both by the actions of the terrorist and by the personal remembrances of the hostage. O'Brien's short story collections present many of the same settings and themes as her novels. Her stories located in the Irish countryside are narrated by young girls observing their mothers, fathers, and neighbors. The narrators are often confused by the ties and conflicting passions that connect these people. As Lorna Sage observed in a review of Returning (1982): "The tales belong to an era of austerity, intensified by Irish puritanism." O'Brien has also written stories which, like her urban-centered novels, involve older, sophisticated women whose experiences with love and sex have left them disappointed. Praised for their sensitivity and universality, the short stories in Lantern Slides (1990) focus on O'Brien's familiar theme of victimized women who grieve for lost love or struggle to overcome their pasts. Her story "Storm" is frequently cited for its poignant depiction of the quiet suffering experienced by a middle-aged woman recently abandoned by her lover. While vacationing with her son and his girlfriend, the woman grows resentful of the young couple's exclusivity, but only further alienates herself when she vents her anger.

Critical Reception

When assessing O'Brien's work, most critics focus on her female characters. Her portrayal of women struggling to escape the role society has assigned them has drawn praise for evoking a full range of emotion in the reader. Due perhaps to her convincing portrayal of rural Ireland in so many of her works, O'Brien has been faulted by critics when she moves away from the influence of her upbringing. Oliver Conant noted: "When O'Brien turns from constrained, personalist Western Ireland to an urban culture of drifting hedonists, in which no one is known to anyone else …, something of her sureness of touch is lost." Many critics have maintained that her writing is most effective when it recreates the Ireland of her childhood. During her prolific literary career, O'Brien has been widely regarded as an artist dedicated to evoking emotions, rather than one who experiments with fictional form. Nevertheless, numerous critics have contended that the distinct style of Lantern Slides is influenced by the Irish Gothic tradition of fable, as well as O'Brien's own childhood in rural Ireland. Thomas Cahill asserted: "[O'Brien] is a storyteller, an Irish storyteller, one of an ancient tradition of storytellers, people who tell the truth. In old Ireland, the words of a truthful poet were both sought and feared: They could kill. Her best work has the sound of something prehistoric—palpable, thrilling, incantatory—about it. It should be read aloud, like poetry. It is, indeed, not prose, at least not in any modern manner."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Country Girls (novel) 1960
A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers (drama) 1962
The Lonely Girl (novel)1962; also published as The Girl with Green Eyes, 1964
Girls in Their Married Bliss (novel) 1964
August Is a Wicked Month (novel) 1965
Casualties of Peace (novel) 1966
The Love Object (novel) 1968
Three into Two Won't Go (screenplay) 1969
A Pagan Place (novel) 1970
Zee and Company (novel) 1971
Night (novel) 1972
A Pagan Place (drama) 1972
The Gathering (drama) 1974
A Scandalous Woman, and Other Stories (short stories) 1974
Mother Ireland (nonfiction) 1976
Arabian Days (nonfiction) 1977
Johnny I Hardly Knew You (novel) 1977; also published as I Hardly Knew You, 1978
Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
Seven Novels and Other Short Stories (novels and short stories) 1978
I Was Happy Here (screenplay) 1979
A Rose in the Heart (short stories) 1979
The Wicked Lady (screenplay) 1979
A Woman at the Seaside (screenplay) 1979
The Dazzle (juvenilia) 1981
James and Nora: A Portrait of Joyce's Marriage (nonfiction) 1981
Virginia (drama) 1981
A Christmas Treat (juvenilia) 1982
The Expedition (juvenilia) 1982
Returning: Tales (short stories) 1982
The Country Girls (screenplay) 1983
The Rescue (juvenilia) 1983
A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories of Edna O'Brien (short stories) 1984
The Keys of the Cafe (drama) 1984
Stories of Joan of Arc (short stories) 1984
Vanishing Ireland (nonfiction) 1986
Madame Bovary [adaptor; based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert] (drama) 1987
Flesh and Blood (drama) 1987
The High Road (novel) 1988
On the Bone (poetry) 1989
Lantern Slides (short stories) 1990
Time and Tide (novel) 1992
House of Splendid Isolation (novel) 1994
Down by the River (novel) 1996

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 7 October 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Girl Meets Men," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,319, October 7, 1965, p. 893.

[The following is a mixed assessment of August Is a Wicked Month.]

A great deal of nonsense has been written in gossip columns and glossy magazines about Miss O'Brien as a militant spokesman of her sex, voicing in her new novel all the perplexity and private savagery said to be felt by women today. August is a Wicked Month seems, for this if no other reason, all set for a succès de scandale; and it would be foolish to pretend that the author's personality, or the topical titillation of her subject-matter, ought not to influence any so-called literary judgment of...

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Eleanor Dienstag (review date 26 March 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Deadly Chain of Events," in New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1967, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review of Casualties of Peace, Dienstag asserts that O'Brien's "old-fashioned" and clichéd structuring of her novel destroys the effectiveness of her "extraordinary style."]

Willa McCord is dreaming. She is walking down a dark street toward her house when a car with two men in it stops flush beside her. One of the men asks the way to a theater. She gives a quick answer, a lie. They drive off. She rushes to her door, but can't find it. The men return. It is now daylight, and there are witnesses, but it doesn't seem to matter. The men get out of the car,...

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Denis Donoghue (review date 3 May 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Pagan Place, in New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1970, pp. 5, 31.

[In the following review, Donoghue maintains that A Pagan Place is an "interesting" and "pleasant" novel, but does not "go deep" enough to merit consideration as a significant work of literature.]

[A Pagan Place] is a novel in the guise of a memoir. An Irish girl, now a nun in Brussels, recalls her childhood, her family, the neighbors, holy and pagan Ireland officially neutral in the years of World War II, a trip to Dublin in search of an erring sister. No occasion is too trivial to be invoked, a nun's dedication to God being apparently compatible with the...

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 6 October 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hooligan's Wake," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,683, October 6, 1972, p. 1184.

[In the following review, the critic provides a largely negative assessment of Night, in which O'Brien is faulted for failing to sustain and build on the "strength and honesty" in her writing.]

A grievance and an exasperation to critics they are, those writers who are as bad as possible and yet never let us quite out of their pockets. (Their style is so catching too.) By about page 10 of Night a series of useful phrases were already beginning to line themselves up: … self-indulgent whimsy … formless preciosity … mixture of narcissism and Irishry as before,...

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John Broderick (review date Winter 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Mother Ireland, in The Critic, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Winter, 1976, pp. 72-3.

[In the following review, Broderick offers a highly unfavorable assessment of Mother Ireland.]

It is surely no coincidence that most of the Irish writers who have lived out of the country have felt the urge to write about their relationship with the land of their birth. One thinks of Lady Morgan, a trashy novelist and the Edna O'Brien of her day; Thomas Moore, whose Memoirs in the form of letters and correspondence were edited by Lord John Russell; Sean O'Casey, George Moore, Kate O'Brien, Mary Colum and Oliver Gogarty. I seem to remember that Shaw wrote some pages of...

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Lotus Snow (essay date Spring 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'That Trenchant Childhood Route'?: Quest in Edna O'Brien's Novels," in Éire-Ireland, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 74-83.

[In the following essay, Snow explores the "journey" O'Brien's heroines make "to reclaimed innocence" in her novels.]

At the close of Mother Ireland, Edna O'Brien defines her aim both as a writer and as a woman:

Ireland for me is moments of its history and geography, a few people who embody its strange quality, the features of a face, a holler, a line from a Synge play, the whiff of night air, but Ireland insubstantial like the goddesses poet dream of, who lead them down into strange...

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Margaret Peters (review date 17 December 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Irish Passions: Women Under the Spell," in The Wall Street Journal, Vol. 204, December 17, 1984, p. 32.

[In the following review, Peters surveys the stories in The Fanatic Heart.]

Reading Edna O'Brien's The Fanatic Heart, an anthology of nearly 20 years of short stories, one sees the same story born again and again, built up into new configurations although the root is the same.

Ms. O'Brien writes from the different turns her passion takes for her native Ireland, the innocence of her Catholic girlhood, and the deep magnetism of sex. They drive the artist back, in memory—force her to return to people and houses and voices she was once...

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Maeve Binchy (review date 1 March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories, in New York Times, March 1, 1987, p. 31.

[In the following review, Binchy offers a favorable assessment of Tales for the Telling.]

Edna O'Brien can tell a good story and she has a great ear for the way people talk.

Up to now the people who have talked in her books have been complicated women, anguished because their expectations were so ill fulfilled, or happy girls, carefree because they didn't yet know what disappointments lay ahead.

Now she has found a new voice, and a whole new range of characters, in the peopled tapestries of Irish folklore, a world...

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Peggy O'Brien (essay date Autumn 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Silly and the Serious: An Assessment of Edna O'Brien," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 474-88.

[In the following essay, Peggy O'Brien explores the psychology behind Edna O'Brien's literary choices and examines the negative critical commentary on her works.]

An intriguing fact about the past reception of Edna O'Brien's work is that American and Irish audiences have been largely at odds, her compatriots tending to be harsh while critics here have lavished praise. She is receiving a great deal of attention now in America, where two collections of her work have been published within the last three years. Her short stories...

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James M. Haule (essay date December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tough Luck: The Unfortunate Birth of Edna O'Brien," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 216-23.

[In the following essay, Haule examines O'Brien's treatment of birth, infancy, childhood, and motherhood in her works.]

Edna O'Brien's Mother Ireland is a book filled with memories that move starkly between terror and pity as it explains, with the help of the haunting photographs of Fergus Bourke, why Ireland must be left and why Ireland can never be escaped. Her last statement is a remarkable admission of an entrapment at once willing and unwilling, a confession of both victory and defeat:


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Marilynne Robinson (review date 20 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Colony of the Disgruntled," in New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1988, p. 11.

[In the following review, Robinson offers a mixed assessment of The High Road.]

Edna O'Brien is a prolific writer of short stories and novels, noted for the elegance of her prose. The High Road, her second novel in over a decade, is a series of more or less free-standing narratives, framed by opening and concluding scenes that declare certain large themes only developed by contrast or indirection in the intervening narratives.

The language here is often infused with an intense energy, but the form of the novel makes it difficult to know what these...

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Kitti Carriker (essay date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna O'Brien's 'The Doll': A Narrative of Abjection," in Notes on Modern Irish Literature, Vol. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 6-11.

[In the following essay, Carriker analyzes O'Brien's "The Doll," in terms of the author's use of the doll as a means of communicating the abjection of the narrator of the story.]

In Edna O'Brien's short story "The Doll," the narrator and the doll stand in an uneasy juxtaposition which is exemplary of Freud's notion of "The Uncanny." The conflict of "The Doll" is centered in the question of the doll's subjectivity, and the story contains what Freud has called "a particularly favorable condition for awakening uncanny feelings." He discusses...

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José Lanters (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Lantern Slides, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 303-4.

[In the following review, Lanters provides an unfavorable assessment of Lantern Slides.]

Edna O'Brien's outspokenness on the subject of women and sexuality gained her a certain notoriety in Ireland in the early 1960s, when such matters were still considered taboo. Since then, Irish writing has come a long way, although one would hardly gather as much from O'Brien's latest collection of stories. The title Lantern Slides itself is suggestive of former times, although the stories are not overtly set in the past, and the themes are familiar from O'Brien's earlier...

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Gale Harris (review date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bearing the Burden of Love," in Belles Lettres, Fall, 1992, pp. 2-3.

[In the following review, Harris offers a laudatory appraisal of Time and Tide.]

In the prologue of Time and Tide, we learn that the protagonist, Nell, has lost one son to a "watery" death and is terrified that her hastily spoken words have forced a permanent breach with her surviving son. Throughout the rest of Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Nell is dominated by her parents, husband, lovers, and children. She moves from a degrading marriage through a series of damaging love affairs, experiences a terrifying acid trip, suffers a nervous breakdown, loses her mother and her home, and...

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Patricia Craig (review date 18 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Against Ample Adversities." in Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 1992, p. 23.

[In the following review, Craig provides a mixed evaluation of Time and Tide.]

"Fear death by water." This injunction from The Waste Land must strike a chord with Edna O'Brien, whose earliest heroine—in The Country Girls—lost her mother in a boating accident; now, eleven novels on, it's the heroine's son who goes down with the Marchioness (as we read on the opening page of Time and Tide). This central disaster is prefaced by a lot of subsidiary disasters; the whole drift, of Time and Tide, is to show what a star-crossed Irishwoman can endure,...

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Robert E. Hosmer, Jr. (review date 23 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Down & Out in Life," in Commonweal, October 23, 1992, pp. 25-6.

[In the following review, Hosmer offers a commendatory assessment of Time and Tide.]

Like Milton's elegy "Lycidas," Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Time and Tide, is a haunting water poem, a heartfelt elegy engendered by the two most powerful human emotions: love and loss. Only here the waters swirl not just in a mighty river but also within the human amnion, for this is a book about what is likely the most dangerous of human activities: mothering. O'Brien's achievement in Time and Tide is so extraordinary that this eleventh novel may well eclipse the previous ten, even her first,...

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Kiera O'Hara (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 317-25.

[In the following essay, O'Hara surveys O'Brien's handling of obsessive love in her short stories.]

I am obsessed quite irrationally by the notion of love …," writes Edna O'Brien. "It's an obsession and I know it's very limiting. At the same time it's what I feel truest and most persistently about, and therefore it's the thing that I have to write about" [Patrick Rafroidi and Maurice Harmon, editors, The Irish Novel in Our Time, Publications de L'Université de Lille III, 1975–76]. And write about it she...

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Hermione Lee (review date 13 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Terror and the Pity," in The New Republic, June 13, 1994, pp. 52-3.

[In the following review, Lee offers a mixed evaluation of House of Splendid Isolation.]

"The Ireland you're chasing is a dream … doesn't exist anymore…. It's gone. It's with O'Leary in the grave." That's what we're told. The heroes have become terrorist, Queen Maeve is a battered wife, the big house is derelict. As Mary Hooligan says at the end of Edna O'Brien's novel Night (1972), "The harp that once through Tara's halls is silenced, mute." Baba, one of the original "country girls" from the fine Irish trilogy that made O'Brien's name in the 1960s, looks back on the...

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John L'Heureux (review date 26 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Terrorist and the Lady," in New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1994, p. 7.

[The following is L'Heureux's generally laudatory review of House of Splendid Isolation, in which he notes some faults in the novel but asserts that O'Brien's "attempt nonetheless merits praise."]

This is a fascinating and disturbing novel—fascinating because it marks a dramatic departure for Edna O'Brien in both subject matter and in style, disturbing because for the first time we see her audacity fall and her elegant prose run badly out of control. Still, where she succeeds, she succeeds handsomely.

In House of Splendid Isolation Ms. O'Brien...

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Bruce Bawer (review date 15 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Widow and the Terrorist," in The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 1994, p. A 11.

[In the following review, Bawer offers a largely positive assessment of House of Splendid Isolation, but notes some stylistic weaknesses.]

Since the appearance of her first novel, The Country Girls, in I960. Edna O'Brien has won fame as a passionate, lyrical prose stylist and a sensitive observer of long-suffering Irishwomen and their barbaric husbands. Her 13th novel, House of Splendid Isolation, centers on a paradigmatic O'Brien heroine a reclusive old widow named Josie O'Meara who lives among "listless fields" on the outskirts of a village.


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Jeanette Roberts Shumaker (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 185-97.

[In the following essay, Shumaker explores O'Brien's and Mary Lavin's use of martyred. Madonna-inspired women characters in their stories.]

Edna O'Brien's "A Scandalous Woman" (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is "a land of strange, sacrificial women." Like O'Brien, Mary Lavin features sacrificial women in her short stories. The disturbing martyrdoms of the heroines created by both writers stem, in part, from Catholic notions of the Madonna. The two writers criticize their heroines' emulations of the suffering...

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Sandra Manoogian Pearce (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna O'Brien's 'Lantern Slides' and Joyce's 'The Dead': Shadows of a Bygone Era," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 437-46.

[In the following essay, Pearce examines similarities between the works of O'Brien and James Joyce, in particular focusing upon O'Brien's "Lantern Slides," which Pearce characterizes as a "feminist rewriting" of Joyce's "The Dead."]

In 1974, Grace Eckley noted [in her Edna O'Brien] the similarities between James Joyce and then-emerging Irish talent, Edna O'Brien. Eckley specifically cites O'Brien's "Irish Revel" as "a West of Ireland version of Joyce's classic, 'The Dead,'" comparing the blanketing snow...

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Hilary Mantel (review date 25 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saved from Drowning," in New York Times Book Review, May 25. 1997, p. 11.

[In the following review, Mantel offers a favorable assessment of Down by the River, but faults O'Brien for what she perceives as overly pedantic, elaborate prose and a tendency to exhaustively reiterate issues.]

Out in the country things get very murky," says Mary, the protagonist of Down by the River, Edna O'Brien's forlorn, unsparing and consciously exquisite novel of rural despair. Ireland is Ms. O'Brien's mother country, and mothers, as we know, are often capricious, often rejecting, often unwilling to mother at all. Mary is about to be a mother and unwilling to be so:...

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Charlotte Innes (review date 8 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Obsession," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 8, 1997, p. 6.

[In the following review, Innes offers a positive appraisal of Down by the River.]

When I was asked to review Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Down by the River, I called my sister in London. I wanted to know if she was still reading this prolific and seminal Irish writer who was so important to us 20 years ago. Newly arrived in London from a small town, we related heavily to Kate and Baba, the mismatched Irish friends of The Country Girls trilogy, O'Brien's first fictional work, for whom England's capital represented freedom from the bigotry of rural Irish life. Now, my sister...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Craig, Patricia. Review of Tales for the Telling, by Edna O'Brien. Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,371 (9 January 1987): 46.

Provides a synopsis of the stories in Tales for the Telling, which Craig calls "a lively collection."

Jaffee, Annette Williams. Review of The High Road, by Edna O'Brien. Ms. XVII, No. 5 (November 1988): 76-8.

Highly laudatory assessment of The High Road

Osborne, Linda Barrett. "Two Hostages to An Ancient Feud." Washington Post Book World XXIV, No. 34 (21 August 1994):...

(The entire section is 147 words.)