Faber and Faber, £12.99, 208pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Saints and Sinners, By Edna O'Brien

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam