Giving Shape to the Moment review: Portrait of a daring writer
In this first critical study, Mary O’Donnell emerges as a versatile and audacious chronicler of Irish society
Mary O’Donnell has published seven poetry collections, four novels and three short story collections
Giving Shape to the Moment
Edited by María Elena Jaime de Pablos
Mary O’Donnell is one of a generation of writers who participated in the great flowering of Irish women’s writing in the 1980s and 1990s and has since amassed an impressive literary oeuvre. If she stands out from contemporaries like Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Deirdre Madden or Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, it is through the versatility of her work. O’Donnell has published seven poetry collections, four novels and three short story collections, all of which have met with large critical and popular acclaim. In recognition of these literary achievements, she was elected to Aosdána in 2001.
Yet, as literary history repeatedly tells us, public esteem and a large readership are not sufficient for a writer to become consolidated as part of a literary tradition. Women writers especially have often fallen by the wayside on the road to canonicity. Although the mechanisms of canon formation are notoriously nebulous, an important factor is academic attention. By tracing precursors and identifying central concerns, critical studies seek to place a body of work within a literary tradition. In this way, they facilitate its inclusion in university syllabi, enable it to speak to new generations of readers, and eventually smooth its entry into the canon.
This first book-length study of O’Donnell’s writing, Giving Shape to the Moment, edited by María Elena Jaime de Pablos, admirably acquits itself of these tasks. Four chapters offer comprehensive overviews of O’Donnell’s achievements in the genres of the essay, poetry, short fiction and novel, while two further chapters trace themes that stand out across her oeuvre. A preface by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne pays tribute to O’Donnell’s poetic vision and “deep concern for truth” and in a wonderfully insightful interview with Anne Fogarty, O’Donnell reflects on her experiences as a writer. The last word is for O’Donnell as the collection ends with her fascinating story, The Space between Louis and Me, which won the Fish International Short Story Award in 2010.
Specifically female tradition of writing
O’Donnell’s position within literary traditions is a central concern in Giving Shape to the Moment. In her illuminating survey of O’Donnell’s development as a poet, Pilar Villar-Argaiz aligns O’Donnell’s early collections with the feminist work of poets like Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan and Eithne Strong who sought to rewrite patriarchal myths and to recover the marginalised voices and experiences of Irish women. In the opening chapter, Mary Pierse also places O’Donnell’s work within a specifically female tradition of writing that focuses on the present and the future of Ireland and engages with pressing social concerns. For Eibhear Walshe, in his chapter on O’Donnell’s novels, this response to the present is part of a trend in the contemporary Irish novel more in general as it attempts to chronicle the profound changes in late-twentieth century Ireland. O’Donnell’s particular achievement within this trend, he argues further, is her sustained exploration of the perspective of the outsider.
In addition to this critical pigeonholing, a writer can of course also lay claim to a literary tradition herself through authorial statements and intertextual references. The genealogy O’Donnell thus constructs is a decidedly international one. Her MA studies in German account for the allusions to Goethe, Heinrich Böll and Elias Canetti in her work, while her belief in the international dimension of literature has her identify writers as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and Flannery O’Connor as important inspirations. That the cosmopolitan dimension of her work is matched by its international appeal is readily demonstrated by the international cast of scholars who have contributed to this collection. Although firmly grounded in Irish reality, O’Donnell’s work clearly also speaks to readers and critics outside of Ireland.
An important element of that appeal is O’Donnell’s remarkable audacity as a writer. From the early 1990s, when she made her debut in three genres in quick succession, to her most recent short story collection Empire, O’Donnell has consistently addressed challenging topics in her writing. In the interview with Fogarty, she refers to Hélène Cixous’s claim that “the only book worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write”. This is clearly O’Donnell’s motto as well. Throughout her career, she has tackled such uncomfortable subjects as female sexuality, patriarchal attitudes, infertility, maternal violence, the menopause and transvestism. In Storm over Belfast she was one of the first writers to explore the experiences of immigrants in Ireland and in her most recent poetry collection, Those April Fevers, she raises the urgent if controversial topic of climate change. Moreover, she invariably treats these topics with an honesty and wisdom that allow her work to transcend the topical and to provide insight into the universal human condition.