WHEN YOU CALL A book A Rose in the Heart you are taking a risk, perhaps a brave one; when you subtitle the same book "Love Stories," you may be approaching the territory of the sentimental with a foolhardy lack of regard. It is Edna O'Brien's particular genius to write about subjects which often fall to poor stylists or sloppy thinkers, but the best lack of conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. No one else writing today achieves what O'Brien does: the exploration of passionate subjects, and a deftness and precision of language accessible in our age most often to the chiefly cerebral, or to the detached.
Her real theme is loss and its effects: diminishment, revenge, reversal, cure. But she is never sentimental because she is never vague. Sentimentality is largely a failure of eyesight. Consider this memory of a lover: "She is remembering his face, his skin, and the one black hair that grew between his eyebrows. She is remembering the ring he wore on his little finger, that had on it a crest relating to God." How well this works as a memory, because of the juxtaposition of God and one black hair. The lilt of her prose is an Irish legacy; so too, I think, is the confidence for such mixtures.
The two most successful stories in this volume, which has no failures, are "Baby Blue," and "A Rose in the Heart of New York." Both are about love that begins with great promise and ends badly, through no one's traceable fault. One love is sexual, the other is between a mother and a daughter; the latter love is seen as in no way less compelling than the former.
"Three short quick deaths knocks resounded in her bedroom the night they met. He said not, to give it a thought, not to fret. He asked if she would like a kiss later on, and she nodded." In this, the opening paragraph of "Baby Blue," we are back in the mixed world: death and kisses, not just any kisses, but kisses "later on." The love affair is adulterous, it cannot go well, although it is everything the lovers, no longer young, have hungered for as long as they can remember. The man tries to leave his wife, has a heart attack, tries to leave again, and then goes back to her. We all know the story of the other woman, but not this well. This woman meets her lover's wife at the foot of his hospital bed:
When she saw his wife she thought that yes she would have known her and felt that the scalded expression and marmalade hair would make an incision inside her brain. "I will dream of this Person," she said warningly to herself as they shook hands. Then she handed him the bottle of white wine but kept the little parcel of quail's eggs because they looked too intimate and would be a revelation . . . No two people looked more unsuited what with his shyness and his wife's blantancy, his dark coloring and hers, which had the ire of desert sand. Later, with the love which allows the gesture, "she folded his two legs together and kissed as much of him as protruded and he asked would she do that when he was very old and very infirm and in an institution for a moment they both cried." Their relationship leads to furious letters and final loss. It leads later as well to the woman's trying, as she watches a carnival being set up next to the cemetery where he is buried "to hold on to life, to see what she was seeing, those people setting up house for a day or two or three, muscles, burial places, schoolchildren with no thought of death." Again, we have justaposition: loss and muscles, the pain that harrows unto death.
The birth of the daughter in "A Rose in the Heart of New York," is an unlucky and a painful one, but the mother grows to adore her daughter, and the admiration is returned:
They were always together, always together. If its mother went to the post office the child stood in the middle of the drive praying until its mother returned safely.The child cut the ridge of four fingers along the edge of a razor blade that had been wedged up right in the wood of the dresser, and seeing these four deep, horizontal, identical slits, the mother took the poor fingers into her own mouth and sucked them, to lessen the pain, and licked them to abolish the blood and kept saying soft things until the child was still again.
Age destroys the bond, and the story ends with the daughter taking the mother on a disastrous holiday, which is the last time they see each other in life. At her mother's funeral, the daughter is grief free, crying abstract tears. This is a story worthy of Joyce, but it could only have been written by a woman.
There are two queer, wonderful stories about Ireland, "The Small Town Lovers," which suggests that the dull wife of a dull shopkeeper may have been murdered by him, and "Clara," which describes the gothic situation of a young rich girl incarcerated in a mental hospital so her family can get her money. Three of the stories deal with recovery from the lost of love; two are about alternatives to the expected pattern which seems only to engender loss.
"Her friends said soon she would meet someone wonderful. It had to be. She did not disbelieve them," begins the last story in the book, "Starting." We do not disbelieve Edna O'Brien. This relentless, careful voice cannot but, as she would say, speak true.