BOOK REVIEW / The yeast of Irish memory: 'The House of Splendid Isolation' - Edna O'Brien: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 14.99 pounds

  • @SusanElkinJourn
THE PAINFUL tension between the private yearnings and the perceived 'duty' of an Irish Republican fighter lies at the heart of Edna O'Brien's new novel. It is a warm, womanly look at the Irish struggle from a multiplicity of angles, free from bigotry, rhetoric, chauvinism or blind patriotism.

McGreevy, convicted of terrorist offences, has escaped from prison and is on the run. He hides here and there; various people turn blind eyes. The police, exhilarated by the the thrill of the chase, are closing in. His arrival at Josie O'Meara's lonely house begins in a dramatic blend of fear and fascination on both sides. Her conditioning dictates that she should raise the alarm in some way, especially after he disappears from the house as quietly as he arrived. But she tells no one.

This is not because she is a supporter of McGreevy's cause; it derives from a growing personal feeling for him. They talk. She learns about his dead wife and child. She hides him wondering 'how many would do it themselves and like her not know why'.

Josie is a widow. Her memories of a miserable marriage are unfolded as O'Brien takes us effortlessly back and forth in time. Josie's health is not good, but McGreevy's vulpine physicality rejuvenates her. McGreevy becomes, for Josie, a transmutation of her husband Jamie in a purer, better form. He has much more charisma than the Garda men who suspiciously ransack the 'splendid house' - a form of desecration, like rape - for evidence and who disgust Josie with their 'lumpen' gait.

There can be no happy or blood-free ending for the 'beautiful tragic country' which is Ireland, any more than for the people who get enmeshed in its troubles. Although Josie and McGreevy achieve unity of a sort, it is predictably shortlived. There is a high price to be paid for attempting to temper single-minded fanaticism - the lifeblood for men like McGreevy's - with ordinary human relationships.

O'Brien's prose is incisive and evocative. Who else would describe a horse's face as a 'long peninsula' or compare a brush on the skin with caterpillars sliding off cabbages? Her often rather old- fashioned vocabulary, whose precision is distinguishably Irish, lilts along in brogue. The unobtrusive use of dialect words - 'naggon of whiskey' and 'talking raimeas' - is also part of the way in which she brings the musicality of Irish voices to the page.

House of Splendid Isolation is a more adventurous novel than O'Brien's moving story Time and Tide, which won the Writers' Guild Prize for fiction last year. The fractured narrative of this novel forces the reader to keep refocussing on different people who emit different signals at different times, while the ebb and flow of Irish history washes through the flashbacks, day- dreams and reminiscences. It is what O'Brien calls 'the yeast of memory' which drives her novel towards its tragic and inevitable conclusion.