Faber & Faber £12.99
Saints and Sinners, By Edna O'Brien
Still bidding her lyrical long goodbye
Sunday 20 February 2011
'Twas my experience of Ireland and my farewell to it"; this is how Edna O'Brien describes her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), which she wrote in the weeks following her arrival in London, and which was banned by the Irish censor and burned by priests for its depiction of convent life.
A full half-century on, however, and in her latest offering of short stories she still seems to be bidding that same farewell, if a little less provocatively.
We see the exilic imagination at work in the careful degeneralising of what otherwise might merely be stock Irish characters – not only ex-convent girls and their "harum-scarum" youths, but also husbands who would rather nurse pints than their damaged wives, fortune-tellers in nameless caravan parks, and men who fancy themselves "keen judge[s] of bloodstock". More unusually (O'Brien is not the first to find exile so generative an experience), Irish enclaves abroad are glimpsed as they change over time – London building sites where Poles have ousted Irish groundworkers, pubs whose Irishness has been commoditised, and estates where the "Irish are no longer in the majority, many having gone home and many others having become millionaires".
O'Brien's great strength, though, is her ability to capture things in what Peter Handke called their "simple, unadorned validity". In stories such as "Green Georgette" there is such a profusion of bright artefacts – from skimmed milk "bluish-white in colour" and "wheezing" cows, to cracked leather buttons "like fallen horse-chestnuts" – it is as though an already sumptuous oil painting has somehow been backlit. In "Two Mothers", an aching exploration of the mother whom the narrator sees in dreams versus the real-life mother whom she avoids for a lifetime, O'Brien's lyric gift affords a simple conceit a timeless quality.
Certainly, it is when O'Brien allows herself to mine questions that seem most personal to her that the stories really take off. (One or two stray into subject matter that feels too intentionally "representative" – one a story about an ex-IRA convict, and one a post-annexation fable about civilian mothers being raped – each a little too neatly summed up to ring true.) In Granta's recent collection of Irish Short Stories the editor, Anne Enright, posed the question of why Irish writers excel at the form, quoting Seán Ó Faoláin's demand for "personal voltage"; Edna O'Brien demonstrates here that she still has plenty of that fizzing in her 80-year-old bones.
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