THERE'S NO WRITER alive who sounds quite like Edna O'Brien. Her prose has a unique mixture of darkness and light that makes it immediately identifiable. Here, to get matters off on the right footing, is a sample of it:
"That night as we were saying the Rosary my grandfather let out a shout, slouched forward, knocking the wooden chair and hitting himself on the rungs of it, then falling on the cement floor. He died delirious. He died calling on his Maker. It was ghastly. Joe was out and only my grandmother and aunt were there to assist. They picked him up. His skin was purple, the exact color of the iron tonic, and his eyes rolled so that they were seeing every bit of the room, from the ceiling, to the whitewashed wall, to the cement floor, toe settle bed, to the cans of milk, seeing and bulging. He writhed like an animal and then let out a most beseeching howl, and that was it."
The word for it is indeed "ghastly," and O'Brien brings the horror of it frightfully to life: the violence, desperation and pathos of a man's last moments are all vividly described in those economical words. Yet there's something else about that passage: it is extremely funny. Like Flannery O'Connor, O'Brien can't help laughing even as she stares into the heart of darkness. The grandfather's lurchings, his purple skin, his rolling eyes -- what we have here is comedy, punctuated and underscored by that marvelous phrase, "a most beseeching howl." Only a few paragraphs later, the same effect is achieved:
"The funeral was on an island on the Shannon. Most of the people stayed on the quay, but we, the family, piled into two rowboats and followed the boat that carried the coffin. It was a jolty ride, with big waves coming in over us and our feet getting drenched. The island itself was full of cows. The sudden arrivals made them bawl and race about, and I thought it was quite improper to see that happening while the remains were being lowered and buried. It was totally desolate, and though my aunt sniffled a bit, and my grandmother let out ejaculations, there was no real grief, and that was the saddest thing."
These passages are from "My Mother's Mother," one of nine stories in this collection that have not previously been published in the United States; the other 20 have appeared in other books or in magazines. These nine are grouped under the heading "Returning," and they seem to me to be the best in the book -- although that, to be sure, is saying something. All nine are about O'Brien's native Ireland, which she forsook for London more than two decades ago but which remains the central influence on her work. As epigraph for the collection she takes these haunting lines from Yeats: "Out of Ireland have we me./ Great hatred, little room,/ Maimed us at the start./ I carry from my mother's womb/ A fanatic heart." Or, as O'Brien herself puts it, "I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women."
IT IS these women of Ireland, whether at home or in exile, who are O'Brien's chief subject. Some of them, as in "My Mother's Mother," are girls trying to comprehend the nature of adult life; others are young women who have been pushed or cajoled into bad, unhappy marriages; others are housewives who live in unceasing fear of their husbands' drunken violence; others are city women falling in and out of love, in and out of affairs. All, no matter their age or place of residence, are susceptible to passion, "that wild and frightened gladness that comes from breaking out of one's lonely crust, and just as with the swimmer who first braves the depths, the fear is secondary to the sense of prodigal adventure," and all yearn for those "moments in life when the pleasure is more than one can bear, and one descends willy-nilly into a wild tunnel of flounder and vertigo."
Those moments do come from time to time, but mostly it is a hard life they lead. A girl sneaks from her house "to cavort with a traveling creamery manager," but when she returns it is to a vicious thrashing and a harsh inquisition: "For some reason creaks are more pronounced in the dark, and her sister was always heard and always badly punished, so that there were cries after midnight and don't, don't, don't. Her sister bled on that stair; then soon after her mother, her father, a clergyman, and two other important men interrogated her about her private life." The hard land and its hard people knock the joy out of these girls at an early age; some retreat into bitterness, others into insanity, others erect protective shells around themselves, but none emerges free of traumatic wounds.
Above all else they want two things. The first is love: "If only I had a sweetheart, something to hold on to, she thought, as she cracked some ice with her high heel and watched the crazy splintered pattern it made" -- "a husband to go home to, a husband to get a drink for, a husband to humor, a husband to deceive." The second is escape, as longed for in a passage that is quintessential O'Brien:
"She fled to England. She wanted to go somewhere where she knew no one. She was trying to start afresh, to wipe out the previous life. She was staggered by the assaults of memory -- a bowl with her mother's menstrual cloth soaking in it and her sacrilegious idea that if lit it could resemble the heart of Christ, the conical wick of the Aladdin lamp being lit too high and disappearing into a jet of black; the roses, the five freakish winter roses that were in bloom when the pipes burst; the mice that came out of the shoes, then out of the shoe closet itself, onto the floor where the newspapers had been laid to prevent the muck and manure of the trampling men; the little box of rouge that almost asked to be licked, so dry and rosy was it; the black range whose temperature could be tested by just spitting on it and watching the immediate jog and trepidation of the spit; the pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (if there wasn't a row); the flitches of bacon hanging to smoke; the forgotten jam jars with inevitably the bit of moldy jam in the bottom; and always, like an overseeing spirit, the figure of the mother, who was responsible for each and every one of these facets, and always the pending doom in which the mother would perhaps be struck with the rim of a bucket, or a sledgehammer, or some improvised weapon; struck by the near-crazed father."
It's all there: the violence, the superstition, the craziness, the drink, the brooding religion, the terrorized women. O'Brien's Ireland is as hard and unremitting a place as O'Connor's South. Yet longings her women feel for love and peace, for a kind connection with another human being, give these stories a tenderness that is both surprising and enriching. A story called "Baby Blue" ends this way: "It will pass, she thought, going from grave to grave, and unconsciously and almost mundanely she prayed for the living, prayed for the dead, then prayed for the living again, went back to find the tomb where his name was, and prayed for all those who were in boxes alone or together above or below ground, all those unable to escape their afflicted selves." Only a person of abiding compassion and understanding could write those lovely words; they echo in almost every page of A Fanatic Heart.u