Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

O’Brien did not easily achieve the positive realizations about personality, and the possible winning approach to life she depicts in Night, which is perhaps her best novel. From her first long work, The Country Girls (1960), she offered few options in her heroines: the pessimistic Kate, who is unable to shake the constricting influences of her Irish Catholic place and family and a resultant Cinderella complex; and her fictional running mate, Baba, who shares her friend’s environment but not her heredity and her guilt-ridden, gloomy outlook—Baba is a battler and a survivor.

In The Lonely Girl (1962), and in numerous short stories, the despairing Kate type was O’Brien’s preferred narrator. She is brilliantly rendered but depressingly predictable in her failure. Only partially in Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964) and more fully in Night is Baba, or the Baba type, allowed to grow and develop. The graph of this progression of O’Brien’s work is, however, no tidy, rising straight line. After Night, O’Brien went back to her Kate figure in Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977) and in later short stories such as the Anna quartet, which closes the collection A Fanatic Heart (1984). A break comes in the epilogue to The Country Girls Trilogy (1986) when Baba, after a long absence, reappears in person. She is her indomitable, indestructible self. Kate is dead; in and out of water in a host of O’Brien fictions, she drowned mysteriously swimming alone in a pool at night.

O’Brien’s verdict then goes to Mary, and her progenitor Baba, discussed above. In life, O’Brien affirms (employing her astonishing, imaginative, dramatic recall of places—particularly Irish places—people, and their words), genuine self-knowledge and honesty are most important. Such qualities foster hope, which Mary Hooligan only once very briefly considered abandoning. Quickly, however, she retracted the wish: “Do I mean it? Apparently not. I am still snooping around, on the lookout for pals . . . cronies of any kind, provided they. . . leave me . . . my winding dirging effluvias.” Connection and involvement with others, in Mary’s view, and in Edna O’Brien’s, must be maintained so she and her readers may carry on.