Cold comfort down on the farm

Carol Birch digs into an intense and poetic despatch from the turf wars of remote rural Ireland
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Wild Decembers by Edna O'Brien (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99, 246pp)

Wild Decembers by Edna O'Brien (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99, 246pp)

WILD DECEMBERS follows House of Splendid Isolation and Down by the River to complete Edna O'Brien's trilogy about modern Ireland. A place where a tractor is a great wonder? Where a judge can get away with calling a man a "bogtrotter" without causing a stink in the newspapers? No matter how isolated the fictional community of Cloontha, this is not reality.

What is convincing is O'Brien's powerful depiction of land-passion and its terrible consequences. "Always on about the sacred fetters of land and blood," Joseph Brennan has lived contentedly for years with his younger sister Breege. When Michael Bugler arrives from Australia to claim an inheritance, Joseph faces ruin. Bugler takes his grazing, then his turf rights.

"You're here because of your land," says a woman waiting beside him in the solicitors' office to which he has gone in his desperate search for a lost document. "Go home and forget all about it or you'll end up like me in the asylum."

The most unbearable blow falls when Bugler comes between Joseph and the sheltered, romantic Breege. No one can emerge unscathed from the tortuous knot of emotions which O'Brien deftly weaves.

Attracted to Breege, Bugler awaits the arrival of his glamorous fiancee, Rosemary. Breege is lusted over from afar by the Crock, "with a stump of a foot, a hump, one wet field with clumps of reeds swaying uselessly and a caravan that leaked." A pair of half-mad nymphomaniac sisters, Reeha and Rita, have designs on Bugler. The scene is set for tragedy.

As ever, O'Brien's prose is intense and poetic. The Joycean influence is clear: "Road accident. Fella coming out a side road at a hundred miles an hour. Big settlement. Lucky not to be in a six foot by three foot. Words of sympathy. Never know the hour or the minute. Thankful for small mercies."

The odd first-person passage allows Breege to speak for herself, but the novel's most inspired portrait is that of Joseph Brennan. Edna O'Brien understands this kind of man completely: the youngest son, tied to the land, with his only chance of love long vanished, all passion gone into his land, his dog and his history.

Against him, Bugler is a shadow, an upstart in a community he doesn't understand. His treatment of both his women seems opportunistic; their love for him, though lavishly declared, somehow fails to convince. Rosemary's comes across as pigheadedness, while Breege's has a florid swoony quality that depends on the lure of the merely exotic.

Far more moving than any of the love scenes is the tender account of Joseph talking his greyhound through her death after she has been hit by Bugler's car. "Fluid, flowing, a brindled phantom upon the mountain in the early morning," she is everything that has been taken away from him.

Rather than the somewhat insipid Breege, who is left holding everything together, our sympathy remains with Joseph when, driven to a desperate and fatal deed, he is left to reflect how "one mad minute stretches into a lifetime".

Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Come Back, Paddy Riley (Virago)