Edna O’Brien: informed by Chekhov, inspired by vulnerability

This masterful writer’s rural-Ireland background invariably emerges from her sophisticated portraits of female sensibility

Edna O’Brien. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/Getty

Edna O’Brien. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/Getty


The most striking aspect of Edna O’Brien’s short stories, aside from the consistent mastery with which they are executed, is their diversity. This writer knows many worlds, and delineates them for us with deep insight, uncanny accuracy, wry fondness and, always, compassion. Although she left it early, she is never far from the world into which she was born and where she was brought up. She is one of the most sophisticated writers now at work, yet her sensibility is suffused with the light of the far west of Ireland, and again and again in these tales she returns to the lovely fields and melancholy towns of her youth.

In her “international” stories – and Henry James surely would acknowledge her as a fellow traveller – she looks with an exile’s measuring eye upon the racy thrills and false blandishments of life in society. The title piece of her new selected stories, The Love Object, one of the most celebrated of her mature short fictions, not only traces with an unflinching, almost forensic clarity the flowering and fading of a love affair but also, and as if casually, portrays the flashy, complacent world of middle-class London in the 1960s. Only a girl from Co Clare would note of her pompous lawyer lover on their first going to bed together: “Another thing he did that endeared him was to fold back the green silk bedspread, a thing I never do myself.”

Edna O’Brien began her career as a writer – and began it early – in a golden age of the Irish short story. She and near contemporaries such as John McGahern and William Trevor had as exemplars the likes of Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor, Mary Lavin and Benedict Kiely – and, of course, the James Joyce of Dubliners – yet on the evidence of the work gathered in this volume her true teacher was Chekhov, for she displays a positively Chekhovian empathy with the characters and milieus that she portrays.

The mark of genius in a writer is an ability to burrow deep into the consciousness of a disparate cast of personalities. We are familiar with Edna O’Brien as an Irish cosmopolitan, the russet-haired beauty who knows her way around not only London and New York but also the pleasure gardens and yachting harbours of Europe; the friend and confidante of the great figures of contemporary art and culture; the trailblazer who flew the nets of Catholic Ireland and made a life for herself abroad that young women, such as those so lovingly brought to life in her early Country Girls trilogy, used to, and no doubt still do, dream of.

Yet this is the same Edna O’Brien who in The Shovel Kings can portray with accuracy and aching sympathy the grindingly harsh lives of Irish navvies who dug the foundations for the rebuilding of postwar Britain.

Nor has she let slip from her artistic memory even the tiniest detail of the Ireland of those first three literally marvellous novels: The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss. One of the loveliest, funniest, most evocative and hair-raisingly accurate stories in this collection, Irish Revel, with its faint echoes of Joyce’s The Dead, conjures a world that is Ireland in the 1950s but that could also be Russia in the closing years of the 19th century, the Russia of Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov. In Mary, the central character, O’Brien catches all the innocence, longing and delicacy of a tender bloom set down unrescuably in a patch of weeds:

For as long as she could remember, she had been pumping bicycles, carting turf, cleaning out houses, doing a man’s work. Her father and her two brothers worked for the forestry, so that she and her mother had to do all the odd jobs – there were three children to care for, and fowl and pigs and churning. Theirs was a mountainy farm in Ireland, and life was hard.

The delicacy and fond humour on display in this story are magical, but so too, in its way, is the unforgiving portrait of the grossness and cruelty of country life. It is hard to think of any contemporary writer who could match the combination of immediacy and sympathetic recall out of which this luminous story is woven.

Younger writers today, particularly younger women writers, acknowledge the revolution that O’Brien wrought in Irish writing. No one before her, not even Kate O’Brien or Mary Lavin, had managed to portray in fiction an utterly convincing female sensibility.

It is not so much the figuring of the female characters themselves that is so striking in these stories but the way in which their author catches in the web of her artistry something of the essence of womanhood itself. Some of her women, such as Maisie in Brother, who has murder on her mind, or Ita McNamara in Oft in the Stilly Night, who believes herself to have been ravished by the stalk of a lily, are plainly mad – one of Edna O’Brien’s other books is titled A Fanatic Heart – but all are in some way damaged by the world, and specifically by the world of men. And all are spiritually vulnerable; indeed, we might say of O’Brien that she is the poet of vulnerability.

Two of the most moving stories, Mrs Reinhardt and Paradise, portray a pair of women who have been betrayed by men and by men’s impossible expectations of what and how they should be. Mrs Reinhardt, whose husband has left her for a spoilt young woman half her age, is almost unbearably touching in her determination to reach out and grasp anything and everything that life might still offer her, and, inevitably, ends up badly scarred. The unnamed young woman in Paradise is also eager to sample life’s riches, and so has given herself to an elderly millionaire playboy who does not bother to try to understand her, and who at the close rejects her, ostensibly because of her failure to learn how to swim.

Here, as so often elsewhere, O’Brien mourns for the plight of her wounded women and at the same celebrates their exuberance, their generosity and, ultimately, their indomitable spirit. She is, simply, one of the finest writers of our time.

This is John Banville’s introduction to The Love Object: Selected Stories of Edna O’Brien, published by Phoenix

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