Thrilling Desperation

Edna O'Brien's new novel fashions a powerful metaphor for a blighted son of Ireland

The fictional world of Edna O'Brien has evolved a great deal during the more than forty years she has been writing. Her first novels—The Country Girls (1960) and its two sequels, The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964)—constitute a deliberately shocking declaration of independence, a defiant cutting of the umbilical cord attaching their author to Mother Ireland. O'Brien likes to quote James Joyce's description of Ireland as a sow that eats her farrow, but in her own fiction she depicts it more as an imprisoning mother from whose stifling embrace one must struggle to escape.

The early novels were personal, autobiographical to a certain extent, and largely about women coping with the inconvenient reality of their own intelligence and sexuality within a culture O'Brien had experienced as "enclosed, fervid and bigoted." With disenchantment and sometimes heavy irony (the lives of Girls in Their Married Bliss are anything but blissful, for example), they are portrayed dealing with sex in and (more often) out of marriage, the destructiveness of lust, the passions and the claustrophobia of family life. O'Brien has occasionally been compared to Colette, and her early works do bear a certain resemblance to the Claudine novels, although they are, on balance, angrier.

O'Brien's debut novel, The Country Girls, was banned in Ireland, as were her six subsequent novels. In 1954 she left Ireland and moved to London, where she still lives and writes. "You have to go if you find your roots too threatening, too impinging," she has said. "I do not think that I would have written anything if I had stayed. I feel I would have been watched, would have been judged (even more!), and would have lost that priceless commodity called freedom."

Ireland, however, has remained her subject. The novels of her middle period, such as Casualties of Peace (1966) and Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977), continued in a personal vein: they tend to center on women with failed marriages, alienated children, and unhappy love affairs. In the mid-1990s, though, O'Brien's work underwent a significant change as she juiced up her style to a new level of lushness and broadened her fictional scope to include not merely people within Ireland but Ireland itself: its history, politics, and character.

None of her books has been specifically political; rather, she has in her past few novels taken political and social issues and transformed them into art. "What I am after is a bit of magic, and I do not want to write tracts or to read them," she insists. House of Splendid Isolation (1994) tells the story of an IRA fighter who takes refuge in the home of a lonely woman; its unwillingness to choose sides politically offended many readers. Down By the River (1997) is a fictionalized version of the infamous "X trial," in which an adolescent girl who had been raped by a friend's father was taken to England for a legal abortion and then pressured to return to Ireland, where she became the center of a nationwide debate. Wild Decembers (2000) is a Faulknerian tale that explores the unspoken ancestral rages and passions within an isolated rural community in the west of Ireland. O'Brien's new novel, In the Forest, is, like her two previous novels, inspired by a true story: the 1994 murders of a young woman, her little son, and a priest by a deranged man in County Clare.

"When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees," O'Brien once said. "Maimed, stark, and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious." She has used central symbols with great effectiveness in the past (in Wild Decembers, for instance, a smart new tractor brought to the village by a smart new man stood for everything the novel's stunted protagonist longed for and feared), and here, in In the Forest, she fashions a powerful metaphor for the character of one of Ireland's most blighted sons: a forbidding image of a forest that is as blighted as he. "Woodland straddling two counties and several townlands," reads the novel's opening sentence, "a drowsy corpus of green, broken only where the odd pine has struck up on its own, spindly, freakish, the stray twigs on either side branched, cruciform-wise."

Michen O'Kane has been warped by his environment as surely as have these pine trees. O'Brien relates the story of his childhood and his ruination in twenty swift, masterly pages: the sadistic father; the loving but powerless mother, with whom Michen identified totally; the rough, unsupervised reform school; the monks, some kindly, some abusive, all trapped in the clutches of the monolithic Church; and most of all the community—self-protective, exclusive, unforgiving. The small boy who loves and tries to shield his mother becomes, by degrees and for one reason and another, a sociopath so frightening that he is dubbed "Kinderschreck" (or "bogeyman") by a German living in the neighborhood. By the time O'Kane is twenty years old, not even the police feel equal to coping with him, and after having been ejected from one institution after another, he wanders his native countryside freely, ranting and delusional, terrorizing the populace, who recognize that he is in a sense their own creation, "one of their own sons come out of their own soil, their own flesh and blood, gone amok."

Darkness is drawn to light, and so the benighted O'Kane is drawn irresistibly to a newcomer, a vibrant young woman named Eily who, with her small son, Maddie, has come to live in the same rundown cottage in the forest that O'Kane himself took refuge in as a boy. Eily is what the locals call a "blow-in"—a peripatetic, hippie-ish visitor. She is, or wishes to be, a free spirit, and she has chosen the cottage, surrounded by brambles and undergrowth, for its isolation and rugged charm. O'Kane sees her as the Sleeping Beauty, a princess who must be awakened by him. It is love of a sort, but all he knows of women is his dead mother and the girls in pornographic magazines, "their throats waiting to be slit."

There is never any doubt about how this story will end, and O'Brien shows her skill not so much in plotting as in her remarkably effective use of symbol, image, and impression. Eily, for instance, along with eliciting a memory of O'Kane's never-forgotten mother, is both Blessed Virgin and pagan earth mother as she blows and paints Easter eggs with her little boy. (The skeins of Irish Christianity and paganism interweave through O'Kane's troubled mind and through O'Brien's prose.) And in one of the book's more disturbing moments O'Kane waits by a thrush's nest in Eily's garden for the mother thrush to fly off in search of food; then he crushes her delicate blue eggs in his hands. He is always outside the idyll, trying to get in: "Herself and the child were one, indivisible, and O'Kane, the outcast, had seen that and had wanted it and had had to destroy it in his hunger to belong."

Although O'Brien has been attacked in her native country for what many perceive as irreligion (and it is true that she treats the local Catholic hierarchy with contempt), her larger vision is by no means an irreligious one. God is present in her books—not a judgmental God but a watchful one. The community, for example, widely regards O'Kane as the very personification of evil, but such categorization is inimical to O'Brien's holistic view of life. Late in the novel a bishop who is making a prison visit to O'Kane is caught by the beauty of the evening sky: "a marvel of pale violet, God's creation, just as the young man in the bed about to take a sip of something is God's creation as well."

The two supreme deities in O'Brien's personal pantheon are Faulkner and Joyce, both of whose marks are clearly visible on In the Forest. Faulkner's influence on O'Brien tends to be benign, Joyce's less so: the lavish pageantry of his language is not entirely compatible with her less ostentatious style, so when she breaks into Joycean mode ("The wall clock seems both loud and slurpish"), the result is jarring and seems affected, fanciful. The style of In the Forest, though, is less Joyce and more O'Brien than that of her recent novels, which is a fine thing. She has said, "I think like a woman and write like a man," echoing Napoleon's opinion of Mme. de Sévigné. This statement is inexplicable unless she was referring to her lifelong commitment to Joycean stylistics. In fact O'Brien writes very much like a woman, and Joyce—Molly Bloom or no Molly Bloom—writes very much like a man.

"I want to write thrillingly about desperation," O'Brien has said. With In the Forest she has undoubtedly achieved this goal, but in doing so she provokes a certain fundamental question: Is O'Kane's madness purely a product of his experiences, or is he in fact a schizophrenic? That he hears voices would seem to indicate the latter. But O'Brien is a Romantic, intuitive and poetic, who seldom stoops to prosaic questions like this one. His madness is an apt metaphor for his world; that is enough. "I'm not sure I have a message," she once commented about her body of fiction. "Edvard Munch's The Scream, perhaps." In the Forest succeeds resoundingly in delivering this message, and what makes it particularly rich is that we are never really sure just whose scream it is—the characters', the author's, or the reader's.

By Edna O'Brien

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