By Edna O'Brien
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 224 pp. $18.95
EDNA O'BRIEN'S sixth collection of short stories marks the 30th anniversary since the publication of her first book, The Country Girls, and displays a style notable for the quality of its grace. Such a style, as Chekhov would have it, consists of "making the most movement with the least effort." Born and raised in western Ireland but having lived most of her writing life in London, O'Brien's territory ranges from the rural to the urban, from the farm country of Ireland to the coast of Italy to the apartments of London. And in all of these territories she shows a deftness of vision that locates not only character but also its connectedness to time and place.
Love, that difficult "rubric against death," is a theme in all these stories. "Devour" and "dementia" are words that crop up throughout the pages: Characters are devoured by passion or the memory of passion; they devour smells and sights as though their senses might leave them; they are demented with grief, with isolation, with unfulfilled desire.
Even children are not immune to the mysteries of hope and desire, loss and madness. In "A Demon" young Meg goes on a trip with her parents to bring home a "repining" sister from a convent. There is a special guest, the doctor's wife, whose social attentions Meg's mother has been courting for years, a rather gross woman whose very presence lends a pathetic quality to the mother's anxious overtures. For Meg this trip is a grand adventure that steadily declines into its own sorts of anxiousness: a lost coat, lost directions and, finally, an utterly lost sister, whose "demon" -- and the family's social standing -- will be witnessed and exorcised by the doctor. As Meg, near hysteria, thinks, "in a few hours' time their lives would be destroyed."
The mothers of children also find the borders of hope and loss a frightening negotiation. "Storm" finds Eileen, her son, Mark, and his moody lover, Penny, on vacation together, a vacation that has become an accumulation of small irritants, like grains of sand in a well-made bed. In their youth and their tentative, selfish passion, Mark and Penny have isolated Eileen, who has herself been recently jilted by a lover. A furious row occurs after a seemingly innocuous dinner; Eileen, appalled even as she does it, vents her rage in a series of petty grievances; Mark turns savagely against her, making clear his allegiance to Penny in these matters of the heart. The story swells on, ominous as the sea, until an uneasy truce is made, though not without cost: "They have each looked into the vortex and drawn back, frightened of the warring primitive forces that lurk there . . . 'Tomorrow'. . ." they say, "as if there were no storm, no rift, as if the sea outside were a cradle lulling the world to a sweet, perpetual, guileless sleep."
" 'Oft in the Stilly Night' " recounts some eerie stories about a "somnolent" village through the voice of an unnamed narrator who adopts the pose of a gossip in love with her people (and what narrator is not a loving gossip in the end, although this one is more forthright about it). Desire and thwarted desire skirt the edges of madness, a layering of difficult lives and monstrous detail that O'Brien manages brilliantly to universalize: "Now I ask you, what would you do? Would you comfort Ita, would you tell her that her sins were of her own imagining . . . or would you drive on helter-skelter, the radio at full blast? Perhaps your own village is much the same, perhaps everywhere is." This loving, graceful voice, and its ability to punch the stuffing of narrow lives into the fabric of Everyman or Everywoman, is at the heart of O'Brien's latest collection.
But the best piece is the title one, "Lantern Slides." In its particulars and its nuance the story is reminiscent of Joyce's "The Dead" (the kind of comparison O'Brien is no doubt sick of hearing over the years, though the story invites it and, frankly, deserves it, in all the best ways). The select of Dublin are present at a surprise birthday party in the home of one of their own. There is Miss Lawless, whose memory of her youthful lover, Abelard, is rekindled by a visit home, and whose hopes in love are also rekindled by the presence at the dinner of a man who could, just perhaps, take that Abelard's place. There is Mr. Conroy, the escort and confidant of Miss Lawless, who entertains hopes of more than her confidences. There are others, too, all hoping and striving for romance or willing to settle for a bastardization of it; it is a dining room full of hope, however tenuous, and full of secret despair, however rationalized. It is, in fact, a glimpse of all Ireland (or else, of all of us), and as O'Brien has written, "At least it does not leave one pusillanimous." "Lantern Slides" ends with the living and not the dead, with a sudden surge of outrageous hope and not the other, darker thing: "It was as if life were just beginning -- tender, spectacular, all-embracing life -- and she, like everyone, were jumping up to catch it. Catch it."
Edna O'Brien moves from the flower of innocence to the taint of self-consciousness and back again as easily as if she were a force of nature. Perhaps she is, for the grace of her characters moves one to reach out, open the senses, extend the fingers, and catch this book in one's arms. Leigh Allison Wilson is the author of "Wind," a collection of stories.