The Light of Evening
With her seventeenth novel, The Light of Evening, Edna O’Brien continues to specialize in creating naïve and determined women protagonists, figures bent on living life on their own terms yet often uncertain of their choices and paying high prices for their decisions. These women love and hate fiercely, are passionate figures often on the outs with their families and friends, and forever Celts, separated from home but thinking of it constantly. Like her inspiration, Irish writer James Joyce, O’Brien always penetrates the consciousness of her characters, revealing the tracks of their minds and longings.
The Light of Evening centers on the deep, turbulent relationship of a mother, Dilly Macready, and her daughter, Eleanora. The novel begins with Dilly dying in a hospital in Dublin, separated from her farm in the west, yearning to get home and enjoy a last visit with her daughter. As she struggles with her illness, she recollects her lifeher deeply ambivalent relationship with her own mother and her resolve to leave the family and travel to New York. As in the case of so many uprooted Irish, her travel is harrowing, her passage through Ellis Island humiliating, and her welcome in the New World perfunctory at best. Her time in New York is a paradigm of Irish women immigrantslife as a domestic and then a seamstress, parties and socializing in the tight enclave of other Irish immigrants, and courtship with a young man who breaks her heart. Her abrupt return to Ireland leads to a rapid marriage to a man she never really loves and a domestic life that becomes routine and discouraging.
The narrative then shifts to Eleanora’s parallel urge to move from kith and kin and her equally loveless marriage to a man twenty or so years her senior. He is a writer and thoroughly self-absorbed, but once Eleanora begins her own writing career, the tension escalates. She has an affair with an editor, her attention drifts elsewhere, and her husband is jealous and competitive. Upon divorce, she becomes the more famous, and in her native village she is criticized for publishing scandalous books that embarrass her family. On her one quick visit to her mother in the hospital, Eleanora leaves behind her journal, which an attendant gives to Dilly. In it are ideas for future books but also a scalding record of her dissatisfactions and enmities over her relationship with her mother.
Dilly abruptly decides to leave the hospital and return home to change her will so that all of her property will be left to Eleanora. In all the excitement, she collapses and dies, leaving forever the mystery of what she thought of Eleanora’s journal entries and why she sought to change her will to favor her ungrateful child. In Dilly’s few belongings, Eleanora finds a cache of unsent letters that record her troubled relationship with her daughter.
In more profound terms than in any of her other novels, O’Brien anatomizes the parent-child bond. As she described in an interview at the time of the book’s publication, “The mother-daughter relationship is so complicated. It’s not as simple as people make it out to be, and I worked in this book to get into the gut of it: all the various strands of love, hate, possessiveness, escape, forgiveness and unforgiveness.” Both Dilly and Eleanora spend much of their energy attempting to disentangle the hurts that make them who they are and understand how those sorrows are tied to maternity. Each wants the other desperately, yearns for closeness, but consistently alienates the other. Dilly repeatedly criticizes her daughter’s choicesdisapproves of her marriage, subsequent love affairs, and disgraceful booksyet wants Eleanora with her when she dies and longs to be buried with her.
Each knows the other without and beyond words, and O’Brien consistently manages to capture that ineffable intimacy. A perfect example of their mutual knowledge and disappointment comes when Eleanora departs after a brief visit, claiming she must return to a conference, when, in fact, she seeks to resume an affair with a new lover. When she pledges to return in forty-eight hours, both she and her mother recognize the deception. “Then...
(The entire section is 1714 words.)