When Edna O'Brien's first novel The Country Girls was published in 1960, her family and neighbors in the small Irish village where she was born tossed copies into a bonfire expressly set for that horrifying purpose. Nearly 50 years later, the country girl herself has long since moved to London, but her fiction still blazes (if only in metaphor). That's what I found while reading my way through The Love Object, a newly published selection of more than 30 of O'Brien's short stories.
At least half the stories take place in that same time and place, the Ireland of O'Brien's childhood, where literature is nothing and the land and religion — and now and then slaking your thirst for alcohol and sin — are everything. As in the opening story "Irish Revel," in which an innocent country girl gets invited to town, supposedly to attend a party, and ends up suffering humiliation and molestation before escaping back to her family's hardscrabble farm. In "A Scandalous Woman," the eventually distraught narrator watches as her high-spirited friend is beaten down — literally and figuratively — by Ireland's pious customs. And "Sister Imelda" gives us the story of a convent school girl with a cold and distant mother who becomes infatuated with one of the nuns, a young woman with a "pale, slightly long face" and eyes "blue-black and full of verve."
O'Brien's gift for detail helps her to make her narrow provincial population — farmers and housewives and pub owners and landed gentry and religious — into distinctive characters. She can also describe with great precision the things of the physical world, so finely you can almost reach out and touch them, as, say, a dresser in a friend's house: "The jugs hung on hooks at the edge ... and behind them were the plates with ripe pears painted in the center of each one. But most beautiful were the little dessert dishes of carnival glass, with their orange tints and their scalloped edges."
When O'Brien ranges farther into the lives of women and men, married and single, beyond the borders of Ireland, she describes longing and desire and the intricacies of love and adultery as keenly and memorably as any modern writer you'll read. "Of all the things that can be said about love," her narrator writes in "Manhattan Medley," "the strangest is when it strikes."
And, of course, O'Brien does not stop herself from bringing the physical nature of love right up to the turned-up noses of the Ireland that treated her early work with such crude disdain.
"He was not my father," the narrator of the title story says about her big city society lover. "I became his mother. Soft and totally fearless. Even my nipples, about which I am squeamish, did not shrink from his rabid demands. I wanted to do everything and anything for him. As often happens with lovers, my ardor and inventiveness stimulated his."
O'Brien has her lacks. She herself once admitted that she's no great plotter, caring more for character than story. But the lyrical turnings of her quest for truth, the deftness of her sentences and the clinical eye she turns on the imprisoning values of her country hark back to Joyce, modern Ireland's old artificer. All together, they make O'Brien the first female bard of the place she bitterly names as "a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of sacrificial women."
O'Brien's 84 now, and eventually she herself will be gone. But her stories will linger — not just smoldering, but burning as fiercely as when they first appeared.
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