Saturday 21 October 2017

Books: O'Brien's fizzing, risk-taking symphony is a triumph

The Little Red Chairs, Edna O'Brien, Faber & Faber, €18.99

Edna O'Brien
Edna O'Brien

Joseph O'Connor

This year has seen much comment, here and abroad, about the fact that Irish fiction is undergoing a renaissance. Younger Irish authors like Sara Baume, Gavin Corbett, Lisa McInerney, Rob Doyle and Colin Barrett have electrified our national literature, with newer modes, higher ambitions and sceptical voices.

Gone forever is the jaded Joycean stage-set on which much of the Irish fiction of my own teens was still laid, a world of sepia, gaslight, rain and epiphanies, literary mirrors held up to mirrors. Young maestros Kevin Barry and Donal Ryan have led the charge in consigning all such fakery to the dump, and an army of ardent true believers has proved excellently able to imagining our battered little post-Tiger republic into language. The current generation of younger Irish writers is the most exciting in a century. How remarkable, then, that the most brilliant powerfully evocative Irish novel published in 2015 is the work of an octogenarian. Step forward, Edna O'Brien, the original breaker of the rules, still quietly shattering preconceptions about what constitutes the Irish novel, 60 years after she started writing it. The Little Red Chairs is an extraordinary triumph.

A sometimes enigmatic stranger from Eastern Europe arrives into a small Irish town, intending to set himself up as a "faith healer" and qualified sex therapist, to the sometimes bemused indifference of the locals. It would be unfair to reveal the sequence of transpiring events, remarkable and beautifully written as they are. Suffice to say that the ensuing story is so startling and disconcerting, and yet so achingly recognisable to any Irish person of our era, that you feel this is a story that had to be told, a kind of modern-day morality fable.

There is a grace and a subtle poise to the construction of Ms O'Brien's sentences, a winning guile and an artistry to the prose. The novel is brilliantly organised, with narrative tact and discretion. This is storytelling of the highest order, resounding with the empathy and authority we yearn for in fine writing. I confess myself an easily bored reader of fiction. But this is a book that I got up in the middle of the night to continue reading. It reminded me that action is character, that, whatever else we may be, we are the sum of our choices. Try as we might to escape moral consequences and outcomes, they will always come back, and there's nothing much we can do but to face them or try to turn away, either of which decisions will be painful.

One of the many notable things about this remarkable novel is the sheer scale of its ambition. It would reduce the book to describe it as an anthology of all myths, yet this is one of the many things it is. But it is much more, too, so readable and involving: its evocations of the natural world, the glorious beauty of the Irish landscape, are themselves worth the price of admission. But this is a novel that stirs even deeper recognitions. Borrowing aspects of its structure from Donal Ryan's wonderful The Spinning Heart, the book incarnates the feelings of an entire community.

In the nexus of strange but undeniable sexism that is the contemporary literary norm, women authors are still second-class citizens. The Guardian has recently warbled its embarrassing, condescending attestation that Irish women writers are "finally emerging", when the fact is that Irish women writers have always been among the forefront. From Kate O'Brien to Deirdre Madden, from Mary Lavin to Emma Donoghue, they have been among our finest truth-tellers and chroniclers.

This has always been a problem for Edna O'Brien, a magnificently skilled, restlessly intelligent writer who has suffered belittlement by being a woman. But, like all the greatest novelists, she has done her work bravely and coolly, sentence by sentence, novel by novel, with her eyes on the highest prize of all, that of guarding the language and loving its possibilities and saying something meaningful about the difficult business of being human.

Her body of work stands bright, brave and strong, a glowing testament to a reality that her millions of readers have long recognised, even as smug critics resisted it.

Edna O'Brien is one of the greatest Irish writers, of this or any era. Time will prove this is so, and has always been so, since the moment The Country Girls stood up and told its supple and funny truths to a republic of lies and hypocrisies. This utterly enthralling novel may be her crowning achievement. Personally, I think it is.

Joseph O'Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick

His latest novel, The Thrill of it All, is published in paperback by Vintage UK.

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