BOOKS / Mother of all tragedies: Jill Neville on two books about women who fled rural Ireland

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THE Edna O'Brien woman could not be more out of fashion. She is flirtatious, placatory, guilty and lives for heterosexual bliss. She is an awful daughter, a disastrous wife and a too-permissive mother and it is always tears after bedtime. Yet O'Brien's novels enchanted a generation with their playful wit; giddy, life-loving, headlonging heroines, so confident when young, even in their naughtiness; so scared when the bills started to come in. She is the artist of yearning. And she ends all too often holding a burst dream.

Time and Tide (Viking pounds 14.99) is a passionate account of this weak and often infuriating woman. But what of the husband's side of the story? Why are so many people inexplicably against her, although she can attract like a beacon in an optimistic mood. For a woman who gives so many parties why can't she borrow pounds 500? It reads at times as if written late at night, emotion recollected in turmoil; there is the same dread intimacy, the same hit-or-miss language.

But the theme is probably her most serious yet: motherhood is the rock she was counting on to support her once she had blown away the dust from life's dusty answers. But suddenly motherhood is the biggest 'no' of all. One son has died. The other has just left home. Her ex-husband still steams in hatred; her lovers have all melted away. The realisation that the nest is stark empty is a shivery moment for any woman, even without a past as Nell's. O'Brien conveys her panic and stupor often with prose as muddled as the emotions she describes.

But the key events are told with mea maxima culpa mercilessness. Nell ran away from her parents' farm in Ireland to marry a man who, attracted by her flightiness, proceeds to pull off her wings. As a mother Nell is a good friend but recoils from any demonstration of authority because that would put her in the realm of the grown-ups. After the divorce, the sons cope by game-playing and clinging to each other. At least Nell is kind and she's fun, often too much fun.

Her parties - great glittering webs of enchantment, spun to lure in her most exciting lover - are described with the old O'Brien brio. There is a silly psychedelic night with a wife in white tasselled boots wimpering outside a bedroom where her new husband is committing vague adultery.

Her older son Paddy goes off the rails. There is a rich scene of maternal martyrdom when Nell, spotting him from the top of the bus, pushes into his group of layabouts. She confronts him, weak though she is; strong this once. But her son's corrupter gets between them: ' 'You're the bad apple,' she said, staring into his eyes, which danced with rage, a rage which she believed was vented on her because of the love she bore Paddy, as if it were a disease, an affliction.' But Paddy drowns in the Thames. The horror and muddle of it; rushes of hope and gradual stunned grief are conveyed with appropriate disjointedness.

Miserable sinner Nell might be, but there is no need to give her penance or a thousand Hail Mary's, the woman has suffered enough. And what was her crime, apart from pleasure-loving? Mere flightiness; which she loosed upon the world and alas the centre did not hold. Nell is left in utter isolation like the Great Gatsby at his funeral. This is a highly emotional story and the O'Brien style has suffered under the pressure, but I for one found it compulsively readable perhaps because motherhood is an underwritten subject.

Deidre Madden's style and preoccupations are the sharpest possible contrast to the madcap colleen school of Irish writing. In Remembering Light and Stone (Faber pounds 14.99) she writes with such sobriety that she is in danger of losing momentum, but what grips is the calm, scalpel-like precision of her thoughts. The theme is rootedness, in both the emotional and geographic sense. Her narrator (another girl who can't wait to escape rural Ireland) runs off to Paris where she allows an American lover to live with her.

One day he casually buzzes off, announcing that someone he met has invited him to live in Aix. This quiet, frail, old-fashioned girl who knits and bakes, often so gloomy and so sensitive the word 'neurasthenic' is called for, punches him in the face. His shallowness, despite its back-packing modernity, is, to her, a devastation.

She finds peace in a village in Umbria, befriended by shopkeepers who live below and sees two girls, arms linked, singing happily, so unlike her sour memories of the Burren. In this climate, her demons settle down. But she has a permanent image at the back of her mind of a hanged woman, which turns out to be prophetic. Flirtatious she is not and when she finally meets Ted, she refuses to divulge whether she slept with him with the splendid comment: 'Even if I did say it, it would be foolish to believe me, because everybody tells lies about sex and I'm no exception.' (I wonder if Milan Kundera should try this?) She goes to America with Ted, looks out of the train window and homesickness begins. 'In Ireland I had seen little fields that had more psychic energy in them. I could imagine hundreds of cities all over America which looked like this, speed, emptiness, concrete, metal, glass, nothing.'

Madden is an intelligent writer who sees beyond the personal hungers, although she does not deny their power. But she can sometimes be plodding, even a mite dreary.