During the time that Edna O’Brien was engaged in research for her novel Wild Decembers (2000), she was brought to a spot in a forest in the west of Ireland where the bodies of a woman and a child had been found in a shallow grave. In response to this unsettling discovery, O’Brien recalled that she “felt, without a shadow of a doubt, a trigger which said, ‘You must tell this story.’” The story, which understandably caused a great deal of pain among the members of the community where the victims lived, concerned events in April, 1994, when Imelda Riney, aged twenty-nine, and her son Liam, aged three, went missing from the isolated cottage in the woods of County Clare where they lived. A search was organized, and several days later a curate in adjoining County Galway, Father Joe Walshe, also was discovered to be missing. Local suspicion was directed toward Brendan O’Donnell, a young man from the region with a previous history of violence and instability, who was home from England on remand from prison. O’Donnell was captured, on the run, six days later, having abducted another young girl. Shortly afterward, although O’Donnell maintained his innocence, the bodies of Imelda Riney, Liam Riney, and Joe Walshe were found in Cregg Wood. They had been shot at close range. O’Donnell was charged with the murders and tried in 1996 in Central Criminal Court, Dublin. Jailed for life, he was found dead by the nursing staff of Dublin’s Central Mental Hospital in 1997.
O’Brien has explained that although she found In the Forest “hell” to write, the setting in County Clare called to her since “My books are a part of County Clare, the place is as strong in the books as the characters in the story.” The opening paragraph of the first chapter, “Cloosh Wood” (O’Brien’s name for the forest of the title), introduces the wilderness as a tangible, living presence, with woodland “straddling two counties” and a mountain “brooding” over the entrance of the forest. As the narrative progresses, the dense, tangled network of trails through its terrain becomes a symbol for the troubled mind of Michen O’Kane, the central figure of the novel, who is O’Brien’s version of the monster who terrorized a whole community and murdered three people in a final rampage before his capture and incarceration. The linkage between the mind of the tormented young man and the features of the landscape is the foundation for O’Brien’s effort to understand and express the psychological condition which could lead to the terrible events that are at the core of the novel’s narrative action.
The problems that this presented were daunting. While never defending his actions, O’Brien recognized the lurid fascination which they aroused in everyone who knew or knew about the killer. To present him as evil incarnate or a monster of depravity would have been a simplistic reduction. On the other hand, to make him sympathetic or to try to rationalize his actions might be seen as an apology of sorts, as well as an insult to his victims. The method that O’Brien developed involves a multiple narrative focus with frequent shifts in tone and mood so that the events gradually emerge as if from sources that are not controlled by any specific authorial point of view. The reader learns about Michen O’Kane both from his perspective as a young boy who is mistreated from his early youth and from the reactions of the people who are caught up in the incidents that eventually culminate in the triple murder. The narrative track is essentially chronological, progressing toward the spasm of viciousness which is its core revelation, but O’Kane’s history is mingled with recollection and reflection as the full effect of his life on a small region of Ireland ultimately emerges. As a permeating presence, the forest persists beyond O’Kane’s short life as a figure for a dark, primal impulse in a land where O’Brien wants to examine “the darkness that still prevails.”
While the actual details of O’Kane’s homicidal rampage are not completely delineated until the later chapters of the novel, there is a feeling of dread from the start, as the second paragraph depicts “Ellen, the widow woman”—a minor character who is a part of the numbed local community—subject to a recurring dream in which she is lost in Cloosh Wood, pursued by “Eily, the dead woman with her long hair” who beseeches, “Why, why didn’t you help me?” The narrative itself is haunted by this question and by the bewilderment of people who cannot fathom how a youngster from their midst could turn into “The Kinderschreck.” This is the title of the second chapter, a word from an alien language that is “what the German man called him when he stole the gun.” It is an ominous foreign term that...
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