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(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Mary Hooligan, ensconced in a four-poster bed in the suburban London house which she is being paid to look after for its absent owners, reviews, over the course of the winter night which gives the novel its title, her life and loves. Approaching middle age, divorced, with a grown son, she mulls over her career so far in an exuberant, zany tour de force reminiscent of Molly Bloom’s in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in its content and form.

Edna O’Brien’s customary fictional practice is to look at life through the eyes of a female narrator who is either a doomed dreamer or spontaneous, like Mary. In fact, toward the end of Night, Mary may well represent an attempt to fuse the two types into one. For most of this work, however, Mary is of the latter type, aggressively courageous in her determination to endure, and enjoy without whining, whatever life sends her way. Her joy is everywhere manifest in her exuberant, creative use of the English language: “I’ve had better times of course—the halcyon days, rings, ringlets, ashes of roses, shit, chantilly, high teas, drop scones, serge suits, binding attachments, all that.”

She weaves time back and forth from the present as she remembers people and places significant in her life; the novel has no plot development in any traditional sense. Foremost in importance are her mother (Lil), her father (Boss), her son (Tutsie), her former husband, “one of the original princes of darkness” (Dr. Flaggler), and her childhood home in the fictional Roman Catholic Barony of Coose, in the west of Ireland, rendered in full sensory detail in its “occidental damp and murk.”

Mary has difficulties with her violent, cold father which are related to her mother’s smothering, compensatory love for her. In an early tableau, she describes her mother’s funeral as “a comic event” following a long illness during which she helped nurse her (O’Brien’s own mother did not die until five years after the publication of Night). She finds her father’s demands increasingly intolerable: “Why hadn’t they died together,” she wonders. In a graphically observed tableau, close to the end of the novel, Mary remembers visiting her father for Christmas. He had retired from farming. She remembers: “I had a speech prepared. I was to say ’I am sorry, I haven’t written, I neglected you, I neglect you.’ . . . The first thing he said when he opened the door was what an hour of the night to come home and what a fright he’d got and how long was I staying.... I should not have come.”

Night is a collection of Mary Hooligan’s musings as she lies in bed. In a fusion of folktales, children’s tales and rhymes, Irish ballads, broken syntax peppered with made-up words which seem as if they should really exist (“suctorial,” “peckled,” and occasional Latinate constructions), she energetically reviews her life and her options, now that her body is deteriorating in middle age. The parallels between the lives of O’Brien’s heroines and her own are often the subject of unnecessary and unfair remarks. It is true that O’Brien grew up in the Roman Catholic west of Ireland, moved to Dublin, married a successful older writer, had two sons by him, moved to London and went through a bitter divorce, and established a very successful single-parent career, writing films, plays, and stories long and short. Everyone has a life; only a few can tell it. None of O’Brien’s protagonists is, however, a professional writer. The gap between biography and art is the all-important one of the creative imagination. Here it is given voice in a stream of consciousness, packed with startling free associations, amid echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce.

The search for love preoccupies O’Brien in all of her fiction . The choice presented to the reader seems to lie between a sensitive, despairing “Miss Raw Nerve” type and a blunt, energetic fishwife type. Mary successfully bridges the...

(The entire section is 1,694 words.)