(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Kathleen de Burca is an Irish expatriate in England, working as a travel writer. The second of four living children in a strict Roman Catholic family, she was raised near the small town of Kilcrennan, Ireland, by a depressed, intimidated mother and an autocratic, English-hating father who was home only on weekends. Estranged from her family and enraged by the lack of freedom for Irish women, she leaves Ireland at the age of twenty, vowing never to set foot on Irish soil again. She does not even return for the funerals of her baby brother or either of her parents.

Shortly after moving to London, Kathleen has a love affair with an English student, Hugo, who throws her out of their apartment when he learns that she has been unfaithful many times. She moves in with a wealthy acquaintance, Caroline, but they become estranged when Caroline falls in love with a heartless and controlling man. By now a writer for a travel magazine, Kathleen rents a small basement flat, from which she regularly travels to vacation spots for her magazine. Although she lives there for many years, it is less of a home than a convenient rest stop between trips. Eschewing commitment and responsibility, she has little communication with her relatives and looks to Alex, her editor, and Jimmy, the magazine’s other writer, as her surrogate family. Jimmy and Alex, like Kathleen, have no permanent partners—Alex still lives with his mother and Jimmy has a series of male lovers. Jimmy and Kathleen are more like sister and brother than coworkers. Kathleen even spends holidays with Jimmy and his family in Nebraska, rather than with her sister Nora in New York or her brother Danny and his family, who still live in Kilcrennan, on the farm of their late uncle, Ned. Kathleen’s romantic life comprises a series of sexual encounters with strangers she meets on her many trips. Even her career choice reflects her inability to make a commitment; not only does it prevent her from being in one place for any length of time, but travel writing, she says, is the only kind of journalism that does not require belief in anything.

Approaching fifty, Kathleen decides to leave the magazine, but with little idea of what to do next. About the same time, Jimmy dies of a heart attack. Having let go of her job and having lost her dearest friend, she gives up her flat, cutting herself loose from England. A legal document from the 1850’s, which she has kept since her days with Hugo, inspires her to make a brief trip back to Ireland to do research for a possible book.

The legal document involves the divorce proceedings brought by Richard Talbot against his young wife, Marianne, in which Richard alleges that she has had a long affair with William Mullan, an Irish groom at their mansion, Mount Talbot. The proceedings contain testimony from several servants who claim to have observed familiar conduct between the two. Kathleen is intrigued by the life that would have awaited a young, well-bred English woman transplanted to the desolate west coast of Ireland during the Great Famine, and fascinated by what could have compelled her to have an affair with a servant. Her own life has been ruled by the search for passion, so much so that she cannot imagine how long-married couples can make love. “What’s it for, lovemaking, if you love each other already? . . . I couldn’t imagine sex that wasn’t trying to find something out—that wasn’t a venture, an exploration.” Still, she cannot argue when Jimmy says she idealizes marriage—she replies “it was no less than a miracle that two separate persons sometimes work side by side, for shared goals, in mutual affection.”

Kathleen was raised in a family where her father spoke Irish and reviled the English. Nevertheless, she has spent most of her life living among “the enemy,” although she often felt alienated from them and looked down on by them. In England, she went by “Burke,” the anglicized form of her last name, de Burca. Her feelings of inferiority begin to heal in Ireland, where she is welcomed as a native daughter come home and comforted by...

(The entire section is 1659 words.)