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."