O'Brien, Edna 1932–
An Irish novelist, short story writer, playwright, and screen writer, O'Brien is considered a pioneer in exploring the condition of women in a society dominated by men. Coping with loneliness, repression, religious upbringing, and sexual needs, O'Brien's women are their own victims—passive and often ineffective because of emotional entanglements. Critics sometimes imply that her male characters are stereotypical puppets, serving only as props for their female counterparts. O'Brien's focus, however, is not romantic but realistic, confronting the key issues of feminism. Influenced by Joyce, her style is lucid, exhibiting a lyrical quality. Like the works of several of her fellow countrymen, O'Brien's novels have been banned in Ireland. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Johnny I Hardly Knew You], while lapped in lyricism, is full of aggression: an aggression which is taken to its unnatural conclusion when Nora, the narrator, murders the young man she loves…. [Nora] is torn between hatred of the eternally defecting male and a longing for "a fruitful love". "Haven't I always been attending to a him, and dancing attendance upon a him, and being a slave to a him and being trampled on by a him?"
The final violence is not gratuitous: "Frankly, have I not always had a secret desire to kill?" When Hart has an epileptic fit in her bed she revenges herself on all men, especially on her father with his "long shins and his cuttlebone tongue", and knows "the gruesome power of the hand that strikes"…. This vital link between fear and murderousness is well made; but the references on the jacket to Crime and Punishment and Camus's Outsider are ill advised. Edna O'Brien is not in that league.
Yet her writing fascinates. It flows with an undoubted authority, while always teetering on the brink of cliché and absurdity. She can, however, deflect with one effective word her own passionate flow: "I'm going to curse the womb that carried and bore me, and the bottle that gave me suck." It would have been so much more expected to have written "breasts" instead of "bottle"….
The artlessness of her art, and her recurring wryness, are Edna O'Brien's strengths….
Artlessness, however artful, results in sudden flashes of truthfulness of a kind seldom expressed in more cerebral writing…. The novel is episodic, and several of the episodes—Nora seeing the Palio in Siena, Nora foiling an attempted rape, Nora as a green girl with other green girls visiting a newly married friend—could have stood on their own as short stories. Yet Johnny I Hardly Knew You is held together by what has always held Edna O'Brien's writing together: a fluency which celebrates the failure of love, and the belief that "even the blights of love have in them such radiance that they make other happiness pale indeed".
"Hymn to Him," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 15, 1977, p. 849.