Edna O'Brien turned 80 last year and she still writes as brilliantly, prolifically and knowingly as she ever did about tortured Irish psyches. And she still manages to be mildly shocking -- when she chooses.
Her career began in 1960 with her novel, The Country Girls. Its frank treatment of sexuality stirred a hostile reaction: the censor banned it, a priest burned it and her mother erased offending passages. Since then O'Brien has produced a shelf-full of novels, short stories and plays, and accumulated numerous literary awards.
In this collection of short stories entitled Saints and Sinners, the doyenne of Irish writers continues to diagnose the causes of misery that abound in drab lives. It is clear it lies in the Irish character, which is, as she once remarked, "maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious".
The story 'Sinners', for example, distills the essence of O'Brien's art. Delia, a lonely widow who is estranged from her family, runs an isolated rural bed and breakfast. She shows a visiting couple and their teenage daughter to their adjoining rooms. As she mentally estimates the small profits she can glean from the deal, the misery of the existence she ekes out becomes all too apparent.
The threesome depart to dine out; Delia has told them they must fend for themselves. Later that night, after they return, unmistakable sounds emanate from one room, sounds that have nothing to do with family values. "Then came the exclamations, the three pitches of sound so different -- the woman's loud and gloating, the girl's, helpless, as if she were almost crying, and the man, like a jackass down the woods with his lady loves."
Next morning, repulsed, Delia tosses the cost of the second bedroom -- her meagre profit -- after the departing car, because, as she informs her guests, only one room had been fully occupied. In a brilliant ending to the tale, Delia's disgust gives way to her realisation that her "heart had walled up a long time ago". Not only had she forgotten her own sins and her own hunger, but she now sees she had also lost her ability to enjoy life's small pleasures.
The stories range widely over Ireland's intimate hatreds, its social nuances and its petty jealousies.
A cringe-making country woman strives to befriend a small-town bank manager's wife in 'Green Georgette', refusing to read the neon-lit signs of rejection. She and many men and women like her court loneliness, determined to keep neighbours, lovers, spouses and children at arm's length.
It's as if the most solid relationship is unsatisfying until it turns ugly. Or, as the story 'Old Wounds' puts it, as if there is some other desirable emotion, not love and not hate, but "something for which there is no name, because to name it would be to deprive it of its truth". However unnameable, that emotion destroys all before it.
As often as not, an inability to communicate and a capacity for self-delusion stoke the characters' misery.
In 'Old Wounds', two cousins, their families long estranged, covertly buoy up each other's loveless existence -- and then fall out when the man suggests to the woman that she buy her grave beside his and his wife's. "I wanted to put things right," the woman confides in us. "I wanted to say, 'Let's talk about the tombstone and then forget about it forever', but I couldn't." Characters often carry their silences with them to the grave. The narrator's cousin in the same story dies before he can confide his feelings to paper.
In a similar plot device, a woman writes on her deathbed to her estranged daughter, "My hand is shaking now as well as myself with what I have to tell you" -- but her letter remains unfinished ('Two Mothers').
Although most of the tales are played out in the rural Ireland of the mid-twentieth century, there are some notable exceptions. 'Shovel Kings', the remarkable first story, is set in England; and 'Manhattan Medley' in Manhattan. 'Shovel Kings' spares no detail of an Irish labourer in England in all its relentless, familiar untidiness: the drink, of course; the failed marriage; and the brutal father.
Worst of all is the tragedy of belonging nowhere -- neither in unendurable exile nor in an increasingly alien Ireland. What stands between this story and cliché is its tantalisingly inscrutable narrator, who, we learn, is in analysis.
'Manhattan Medley' is O'Brien's take on the canker of jealousy that even an über-sophisticated, cosmopolitan affair generates. Love is painful because "it always amounts to two people wanting more than two people can give".
While the dominant mood across the stories is dark, a thin beam of optimism occasionally breaks through. This happens when characters manage to gain some insight into their intractable situations.
We saw it in 'Sinners', and it may also be found in 'Send my Roots Rain'. Here, a spinster, Ms Gilhooley, has a rendezvous with a great Poet -- unmistakably Patrick Kavanagh. He stands her up, to her shame. The hotel porter offers a benign explanation: he is "the shyest man I ever came across. I'll bet you he's . . . reproaching himself for his blasted boorishness..."
As Miss Gilhooley travels home, she realises that "she knew then, and irrevocably, the love, the desolation that goes into the making of a poem."
And, one might add, to writing the best of short stories. O'Brien has great gifts: an inimitable lyrical voice; an unflinching, uncompromising gaze that lays bare love, longing and families; and an acute insight into the tragedy of human existence.
Mary Shine Thompson is former dean of St Patrick's College, a college of Dublin City University.