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Rosaries and ovaries

Carol Birch reads a harrowing tale of rural Irish angst; Down by the River by Edna O'Brien, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pounds 15.99
A "scutty little sheep farmer" in his decrepit mountain home wields a nicotined mobile phone beneath a picture of the Pope. Crazed women launch into Old Testament rants and young girls, giggly in the locked fastness of an adolescent bedroom, shave their pubic hairs and read about orgasms. "Rosaries and ovaries", as a local doctor wryly comments, "I don't know which does the most damage to this country." It is of course, modern rural Ireland bizarre and schizoid as ever in Edna O'Brien's latest novel. "In the sockets of the eyes different densities of dread," broods the knotty prose, "They know without knowing." In this dark and harrowing tale, the appalling truth is concealed like worms under a stone.

The story is familiar. Mary MacNamara, a young girl of 14 or so, is sexually abused by her father, James, a pathetic and manipulative man whose needy nature both attracts and repels the daughter who has become the centre of his craven universe. Following her mother's death from cancer, Mary becomes pregnant and runs away to England to get an abortion. She is brought back amid a dreadful blaze of publicity, made a ward of court and, refusing to implicate her father, forced to continue with the pregnancy. Politicians and lawyers discuss her case, as does the general public through the medium of radio phone-ins to which the hapless child, like the fox tossed about by the pack, listens in horror.

The book heaves with the imagery of corruption. An encounter with a ladybird, a creature prey to parasitic infestation, is a reminder that even closeness has its dangers: "I'll make a hole in your armour and then I'll eat you from inside," says Sister Aquinas at the convent which has become a kind of sanctuary to the child Mary.

This in turn reminds us of the cancer that is slowly and painfully destroying her mother, and is later echoed in the baby itself. An alien within, a creature of near horror, it is identified variously with the disease, with lies, and, grotesquely, with a malevolent suicidal fish forced upon Mary as a pet by the anti-abortion harpies who keep watch over the established pregnancy. "You wouldn't kill it, would you?" they wheedle. "Once you see a little soul struggling for life...". Mary sees only its "small black unfeeling bead" of an eye, the expression "one of spite". The implication clearly is of a deep rot at the very core of the society which spawned it.

What a joyless Ireland this is that we are shown. Nothing of the vigour and humour and richness of the place is allowed to intrude upon the pervading gloom.

Despite the modernity and distinctiveness of Edna O'Brien's voice, Down By The River is part of a particular mythologising vein that runs through Irish writing. It is there in the dense Joycean language ("O sun. O brazen egg-yolk albatross...") in the fine lyrical passages describing the hard, beautiful landscape, and in the characters themselves.

We are dealing with archetypes. Here the lonely Irish bard, there the chorus of wailing women. As for Mary - "She's every woman" in the words of a popular song that crops up more than once, and as such becomes so much a symbol that we lose her. Like the anonymous women we read about in the newspapers, we engage with her situation rather than her individuality. This, in fact, is precisely the point of the book. No-one in all the hubbub of conflicting voices sees the real human being at the centre of this nightmare, and neither do we. Mary is the invisible eye of the storm, the suffering innocent destroyed by bigotry, a very Irish archetype.

Ironically, we get to know her father far better. "A very heated man says a neighbour", but this is something of a euphemism. A terrifying mixture of weakness and brutality, James weeps with loneliness, rages at fate, depends like a baby on his wife and Mary, and blusters like the bully he is. His desperate yearning for his daughter is only surpassed by the bottomless pit of his own self-pity And because he is more real than Mary, it seems a strange injustice when we come to realise that he, in fact, is the tragic figure of the book. For Mary will survive - at the end her voice risen strong and true. The hidden blights - cancer, a baby - are nothing to the soul's own weakness, destroying from within.