BOOK REVIEW / Dump those moonbeams: Time and tide - Edna O'Brien: Viking, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS NOVEL, like almost all Edna O'Brien's previous novels, is about the trials of Irish womanhood. It tells the story of Nell, a whimsical beauty who has swapped the suffocating narrowness of her native land for the loveless brutality of England. Nell has poetry in her soul and passion in her heart, but no one to appreciate them. Her cruel English husband thinks she is a slattern and mentally unstable. (She eventually runs away from him and has to fight a lengthy court battle to retain custody of her two sons.) Subsequent lovers only exploit her generosity of spirit. There is one - Duncan - who sort of understands her. He says things like 'I want to feel you . . . I want to know you . . . no broken ends . . . no explanations . . . the summa of love.' But he is much too much of a poet to hang around for long.

Nell's two sons provide the only enduring joy in her life, but they, too, grow up and away, take drugs, replace her limitless mother-love with girlfriends. Eventually one of them drowns.

The episodic account of these hardships is executed in the overblown, fey-cum-corny prose style that Edna O'Brien has made her own. Nell finds in her embrace with Duncan 'something of the fervour of her own land, ancient, turbulent, and beyond pity'. And when she is having it off with the man from the supermarket down the road, she sees herself as 'bog hole, wet and slushy, bog hole which he would ride and stampede like a mountain pony'.

When the vicissitudes of her romantic and familial life allow, Nell works at a publishing house. It is her job to read the unsolicited manuscripts and to recommend them or, as is almost always the case, to send them back. In one episode, emboldened by the after-effects of an LSD trip, she casts off the cold politesse of the standard rejection letter and begins sending out frank, ad hoc advice to the aspirant authors. Irritated by a historical romance, and its 'effluence of steamy words that revealed the sexual twitches underneath', she tells the writer: 'You're in heat, Mrs Gilbert, hence the vapours in your prose.'

This seems a bit rich coming from Nell, especially in the light of the counsel she sends another writer, 'Millie':

. . . sit with your story, your rich, raw, bleak, relentless story, the one you are so near to, too near to, and moisten it with every drop and suppuration that you have until in the end it glistens with the exquisite glow of a freshly- dredged pearl . . . It is as fundamental as motherhood, but the seed is within yourself. 'How?' I hear you ask. Simple. The sperms are the moonbeams and sunbeams and shadows of every thought, half-thought and follicle of feeling that have attended you since your last breath of hardship . . .

This, like all the other Oirish tosh that Nell is forever unloading on people, receives O'Brien's evident and enthusiastic approbation. Indeed it is by adhering to just such nonsensical notions of the literary project that Time And Tide ends up being the tedious, soppy, overblown novel it is.