Faber and Faber, £12.99, 208pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Saints and Sinners, By Edna O'Brien
Friday 11 February 2011
Half a century after her incendiary debut novel, The Country Girls, was burnt in Ireland's hinterlands and its departed author publicly excoriated by her own mother, Edna O'Brien still holds her place as a revealer of the nation's soul. She shows its "maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious" character, in this latest elegant, uncluttered collection, to have a remarkable, tragic forbearance for suffering.
Not all, but most of the 11 stories are aching distillations of profound disappointment - in love, in marriage, in the nuanced relationships between family members, factional communities, neighbours. They are also, over-archingly, meditations on the place her characters call home, as well as its inverse, exile - perhaps unsurprisingly so, given the author has spent much of her career writing about the home she left behind decades ago.
"Exile is in the mind and there is no cure for that," says a character in the opening story, "Shovel Kings". Rafferty, a pensive old hobo wrenched away from his Irish home for a lifetime's hard graft in North London, finally decides to take a visit back, and meets with a rude awakening. Home is not the warm, welcoming Eden that he has kept alive in his mind, but a superannuated memory, a foreign land in which he faces another kind of exile.
O'Brien, known for her frank treatment of women's sex lives, at times touches on the sexual desires and disappointments of her characters. But she focuses more keenly on the emotional exile felt by aggrieved mothers, betrayed wives, guilty daughters, whose misery is often compounded by a terrible, inverse epiphany in which they see, quite suddenly, the brute truth of their lives.
"Sinners" is a simple, stunning story of a woman's stunted interior life, brought into focus when a visiting family at her boarding house reveal their easy intimacy which leaves her enthralled, yet repelled. She convinces herself they are enacting carnal obscenities in their rented room, and it is only when they depart that she is forced to face her emotional void: "Her heart had walled up a long time ago, she had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give and take that is life." The story unfolds delicately, yet the immense anguish and solitude of her character is drawn out. Another clarifying moment of misery hits a middle-aged wife in "Madame Cassandra" as she becomes her own seer, using the past - her husband's original ardour, his subsequent cooling and the cruel, casual brutality of his infidelities - to define her unmoored present.
The reader senses the uncomfortable removal of her blinkers, to face a reality that is painful to bear. "Send My Roots Rain" sees a librarian take a trip into town for a date with a shy poet who does not show up. The journey is, for her, a short-lived remembrance of the delicious pain and exhilaration of romance, which deposits her back to her cold, lonely reality.
Not all the women are simple or silent victims. There is a mistress who wanders the streets of New York, caught in the rapture of her love, in "Manhattan Medley": "We would not enter into a marriage that must by necessity become a little stale, a little routined". And there is the harrowing testimony of a child gang-raped in "Plunder", in which men exact political revenge through sexual torture. She has, despite her horrifying ordeal, a fierce will to survive.
O'Brien's Ireland, sometimes faulted for preserving a bygone age in aspic, here combines bucolic images of milk farms, baking mothers and girls in knitted frocks with the brash arrival of new money, helipads and jostling ambition: a new Ireland epitomised in "Inner Cowboy" in which the might of the millionaire McSorley family, responsible for a disastrous oil spill across the countryside, is pitted against the innocence of the doomed, fragile figure of a country-boy, Curly. The new Ireland is steam-rollering across the old, O'Brien suggests, and its forces bring their own sinners.
In a lovely flourish, O'Brien scatters her stories with small, beautifully-tended and thrillingly described gardens, as lush as they are sweet-smelling. Some sit on the fringes of the story, others offer respite for characters who stumble across them in passing, but they emerge time and again like little plots of makeshift Edens for the fallen.
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