A collection of Edna O’Brien’s short stories from across five decades of writing is a treat indeed. O’Brien has an ability to conjure up a whole way of life within a few pages. Her stories are tinged with longing, desire and other complex emotions. The experience of reading this volume after her feted autobiography also means that many details taken from her own life, from excision of abcess to relationship with mother, are easily recognisable.
O’Brien famously fell out with her mother when her novel The Country Girls was first published in 1960, and the complexities of mother-daughter relations are explored in several stories here. In “A Rose in the Heart of New York”, a daughter who adores her mother grows apart from her when she is sent to convent school, and slowly withdraws her love. When her mother dies, she is seized by terrible guilt as well as grief.
In “My Two Mothers”, a daughter is initially so close to her mother that she can describe the smell of her body and her gestures. When she attains adulthood, however, her mother’s hostility drives them apart, though reconciliation of sorts is achieved later.
Edna O’Brien’s short stories have always exuded a sense of old-fashioned Irishness; one not dissimilar to that of Joyce’s Dubliners. Whether her protagonists are in the rural setting of an Irish village or part of the diaspora of the Irish across London or New York, the pull of the home country is never far. “Irish Revel” tells of a hopeful girl’s trepidation before her first adult party. The party is a disappointment and her hopes are crushed. In this and many other stories, O’Brien’s talent for comedy is shown. A collection of country buffoons paws the girls and drones through the evening. This slapstick comedy is shown to fine effect again in “Tough Men”, in which some of the same characters attempt to make a quick buck. In “The Connor Girls”, the prurience of small-town life is highlighted: “... a local person thought of fitting up a telescope to try and see into the parlour, but as soon as he went inside their front gate to reconnoitre, the dogs came rearing down ...”
In “Shovel Kings” the immigrant experience in the 1950s – gathering at dawn to be selected for casual labour; poor wages; arduous conditions – is mirrored by the more recent experience of migrants from Eastern Europe.
Love and female eroticism lie at the heart of many of O’Brien’s stories. The love is often doomed, often because the man is married. In “A Scandalous Woman”, a girl is forced into marriage with a cad who just wanted to use her, while in “The Love Object”, the fluctuating feelings of love – desire, fulfilment, highs and brutal lows – are conjured up with sensitivity and sensuality. In “Number Ten”, a woman dreams of escaping the mundanities of quotidian existence by being her husband’s mistress: the next story, “Mrs Reinhardt”, sees her cast off in favour of a much younger woman. “Manhattan Medley” leaks wistful regret. “Send My Roots Rain” refers to a lost love. O’Brien’s ability to portray the almost physical throb of heartbreak is second to none.
O’Brien’s language may occasionally seem archaic (dilatory, cupidity) or imprecise (a whatnot), and her vision of the Irish quaintly old-fashioned, but this fades into insignificance next to the power of her tales.