In this respect Josie O'Meara, the chief protagonist of House of Splendid Isolation, is an archetypal O'Brien creation. Old and sick, alone with her memories, her dissatisfactions and her guilt, Josie inhabits the decaying mansion to which she came many years ago as a bride. The servants are long gone, her despised husband James is dead. She is half-mad, childless, and kept alive only by memories of her brief, intense passion for a local priest.
Into this wearyingly familiar territory comes McGreevy, a terrorist on the
run. Wanted for some 20 murders, McGreevy holes up in Josie's house while he plans the assassination of a famous Englishman who holidays on a nearby lake. Initially Josie is confined to her bedroom while he sleeps in makeshift quarters down below and cleans his weapons. Inevitably, though, the two are drawn together by their enforced proximity and by the novel's heavy- handed determination to explore the terrorist psyche.
There is no particular reason why the conversations between Josie and McGreevy should be illuminating, and they are not. 'If women ran your organisation there would be no shooting . . . No bombs,' Josie claims sentimentally, to which McGreevy replies that his group has plenty of women members. His aims, he tells her, are to get the British out of Ireland followed by 'justice for all. Peace. Personal identity. Racial identity'. The stiltedness of these responses hardly matters, for O'Brien's theory seems to be that actions speak louder than words; McGreevy's humanity is revealed by his tenderness towards Josie, which manifests itself in his willingness to risk his life and the success of the entire terrorist operation on her behalf.
This would be a surprising development only if the reader came to this novel committed to the tabloid view that terrorists are uniformly cold and incapable of feeling. Yet the dodgy distinctions which permit them to operate - 'I've never targeted a civilian,' McGreevy tells Josie - are fairly well documented, as is the fact that some of the most brutal individuals in history have displayed a selective tenderness towards their parents, wives, children or even pets.
McGreevy's metamorphosis from impersonal killing machine into flawed but sympathetic human being is entirely predictable in terms of the novel's plot. It is also handled with O'Brien's characteristic mawkishness, which leads her to endow the terrorist with a dead child and a special spouse: 'She is standing behind his chair, his dead wife, his murdered wife, about to place her hand on his nape.' McGreevy also has a would-be girlfriend, another wistful O'Brien woman, whose unrequited love has persuaded her to join the cause: 'What I'm thinking is that the fightin' will be over in a few years . . . The South will go up there and reclaim the six counties and life will be normal and he'll come to me.'
What O'Brien has attempted in this novel, in effect, is to graft a narrative about terrorism on to one of her familiar laments for lost youth and frustrated passion. Josie is simultaneously self-flagellant and self-indulgent, clinging to her lost love with such tenacity that the writing becomes virtually a parody of itself. The male characters, except McGreevy, are more varied and convincing, especially in the edgy moments which precede the book's violent climax. The vigour and precision with which these scenes are drawn suggest what O'Brien might be capable of if only she could throw off her enervating trademark gloom.
Yet the opening words of House of Splendid Isolation hardly suggest a willingness to break with the past, fictively or stylistically. 'History is everywhere,' the novel begins, ushering in a prologue of stage Irishness. 'I hear messages,' intones an unidentified narrator. 'In the wind and in the passing of the wind.' There could hardly be a neater illustration of O'Brien's fatal humourlessness, and of the extent to which too much posing as a tragedy queen has turned her deaf to her own bathetic effects.
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