A fiction too far

The hepatitis C scandal, Bloody Sunday and the career of Charles Haughey are all major historical and political issues which …

The hepatitis C scandal, Bloody Sunday and the career of Charles Haughey are all major historical and political issues which have been dramatised recently. But Edna O'Brien's new book, which tells the story of the murder of Imelda Riney, her son Liam and Father Joe Walsh, has broken an unspoken rule and crossed the boundary into private grief, writes Fintan O'Toole

If any one vogue is emerging in the early months of 2002, it is the intertwining of fact and fiction. On television in Ireland and Britain, we have had two dramatisations of the events of Bloody Sunday; the No Tears series which used the techniques of drama to push the hepatitis C scandal back onto the public agenda; and the brilliant docu-drama Conspiracy which re-animated the conference at which the Nazis planned the Holocaust. On stage, Sebastian Barry's Hinterland, now touring in Britain after its run at the Abbey, is clearly based on the wayward career of Charles Haughey.

To an increasing extent, it seems, the stance of the writer has one foot in verifiable events, the other in imaginative reconstruction. All of the dramas just mentioned, however, have one thing in common. They deal with events that are very clearly in the public realm of history and politics. They ask questions about the use of power.

Now, however, comes a work that occupies the same border territory between the real and the imagined, but in a realm that is much less unambiguously public. Edna O'Brien's forthcoming novel In the Forest will deal with one of the most devastating events of the past 20 years in the Republic: the murder of Imelda Riney, her son Liam and Father Joe Walsh by Brendan O'Donnell in 1994. For Imelda Riney's relatives and friends - not least for her surviving son who is now 14 - this revisiting of unspeakably traumatic events is an unwanted and unjustifiable intrusion that can only do harm.


The ethical issues raised by this conflict are not entirely new, of course. Without the mingling of fact and fiction, there would be far fewer films, TV dramas, historical novels and even paintings. Any great portrait, for example, is at once a representation and an invention. Whole art forms - photography, video, computer art - depend on the tension between one and the other. Insofar as they make statements about an identifiable reality, works of art are always subject to questions about truth and lies. Do they sacrifice the messy complexity of events to the aesthetic demand for order and pattern? Do the inevitable distortions and inventions serve a greater truth?

The questions raised by In the Forest are rather different. What matters is not how well or badly Edna O'Brien has told the story - a question that can only be answered when the book is published in April - but whether it is right to tell it at all against the clear wishes of the family. The people close to Imelda Riney, after all, are not, like Charles Haughey, public figures who knowingly placed themselves in the spotlight. The murders themselves were not, like the Bloody Sunday killings or the hepatitis C scandal, historic events with long-term political consequences that need to be examined. They were a dreadful catastrophe visited on innocent people by a disturbed, deranged man. They did not and do not have a public meaning.

It might be argued, of course, that all good novelists are always invading privacies. They draw on the private lives of their own families, their friends, their neighbours. Having a novelist for a child has always been a parent's nightmare. And the recent vogue for intimate memoir has upped the ante beyond the usual perils of disguised fictional portraiture. Writers such as Frank McCourt and Nuala O'Faolain have, for example, been criticised for publishing intimate accounts of their own mothers.

Again, however, In the Forest is obviously different. In general, novelists merely put the people they know into fictional characters. The number of people likely to be able to identify the originals is usually very small. And the memoir writers are, after all, telling their own stories. There is a real sense in which their mothers belong to them, since they are woven into the fabric of their own lives.

The Brendan O'Donnell murders, on the other hand, are not something that happened to Edna O'Brien. They are, presumably, something she read about in the papers. Writers don't choose their families or their neighbours. Edna O'Brien has chosen this story.

She can point out with some justice, however, that she is not the first contemporary Irish novelist to be inspired by real acts of violence. John Banville's 1989 novel The Book of Evidence, for example, is clearly inspired by the murderer Malcolm Macarthur. Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man, published in 1994, is obviously based on the Shankill Butchers.

A key difference between both those books and In the Forest, however, is the nature of the connection between the real events and the novel. Neither the Banville nor McNamee books presented themselves as being about the Macarthur killings or the Shankill Butchers. The blurb of The Book of Evidence makes no reference to Macarthur or indeed to any relationship between the novel and real events. It simply describes the contents as "the first-person testimony of Freddie Montgomery" and the style as a "blend of thriller, farce and dramatic tragedy". Likewise, the blurb of Resurrection Man calls the book "a dreamlike appraisal of the roots of violence".

In neither case, moreover, is the reader asked to read the novel through the prism of the real events. Banville's Montgomery is an aesthete and dilettante like Macarthur, but the identification is clearly and deliberately incomplete. McNamee's Victor Kelly has a Catholic-sounding name like the leading Butcher Lenny Murphy, but other details don't fit the actual story.

In the Forest, on the other hand, is being presented very clearly as a version of the Brendan O'Donnell killings as evident from advance material from Weidenfeld & Nicolson. "In the early 1990s three murders were committed in a forest in the far west of Ireland. Inspired by these horrific events Edna O'Brien has written one of the most memorable novels of her career". From extracts published so far in the New Yorker, moreover, it seems clear that her Mich O'Kane is extremely close to Brendan O'Donnell. More pointedly, it seems from the reaction of those close to Imelda Riney that the author actually approached at least one of them for help with her research. Unlike the other books, therefore, In the Forest contains an element of direct intrusion. To be fair to Edna O'Brien herself, that intrusion is driven by the circumstances of her own career. The Co Clare of Brendan O'Donnell and Imelda Riney is her own heartland. Had she been able to live and work in Ireland, it is likely that she would not have needed to approach the social world in which the murders happened as an outsider. She would not have felt the need to engage in the journalistic research which drove her to make such direct approaches.

In a real sense, In the Forest is a product of the distortions wrought on Irish writing by a history of censorship and exile that is now, for a generation younger than Edna O'Brien, a thing of the past. She was effectively forced into exile in the late 1950s. Her first three novels, The Country Girls, The Girl with Green Eyes, and Girls in Their Married Bliss, were all banned in Ireland. She has been based in London for most of the last 40 years. And she is far too intelligent and honest a writer not to be aware of the difficulty of writing about a place you have not inhabited for so long, especially a place that has changed as rapidly and profoundly as Ireland has in the decades of her exile.

Her quite understandable need to avoid the trap of merely recycling the perceptions of the 1950s and 1960s has led her into an unusually direct approach to research. The centralcharacter in her 1994 novel House of Splendid Isolation, about the relationship between a republican terrorist and the woman whose house he commandeers, is based on the INLA killer Dominic McGlinchey, whom she interviewed in great detail. The 1997 novel Down By the River is likewise a meticulously researched account of the X case.

It should have been clear, nevertheless, that the Brendan O'Donnell murders are different. McGlinchey was a notorious killer who has deliberately imposed himself on public consciousness. The family in the X case were and remain anonymous. The people closest to Imelda Riney, on the other hand, are neither of these things. They are private people dragged into public life in the most horrendous way and fearful of being pushed back into it against their will.

The harm done to Imelda Riney's loved ones in all of this is clearly not on the same scale as that which Kenneth Tynan attributed to Truman Capote in a famous dispute about the latter's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. At the time of that publication, Tynan argued that Capote had exploited the murderers on whom that book was based by failing to provide them with the help of psychiatrists who might have shown them to be insane and thus saved them from the electric chair. He argued, persuasively, that Capote had a vested interest in the men's execution, which cleared the way for the publication of his book.

Tynan wrote in the Observer that "Where lives are threatened, observers and recorders who shrink from participation may be said to betray their species: no piece of prose, however deathless, is worth a human life." In the case of Edna O'Brien's novel, lives are not at stake, just the memory of lives. The participation required is not of the direct and tangible kind that Tynan had in mind, but a broader sense of sharing in the sorrow that most Irish people felt at the time of the killings. Yet the question is essentially the same - is the author's deathless prose worth the grief that she knew it would cause to people already hurt almost beyond endurance?

It is just about conceivable that there might be some circumstances in which the answer could be "yes". There is some sense in which art has its own moral imperatives, necessities as inescapable in their way as the duties of ordinary morality.

It is by no means clear that In the Forest is such an extraordinary case of conflicting duties. There is simply no artistic need for so close an intrusion into other people's grief. As the Banville and McNamee books have shown, it is perfectly possible for a novelist to be true to a particular source of inspiration, even an especially lurid and public set of events, while maintaining a decent degree of tact.

The only reason to do otherwise is to be found in the realm, not of art but of commerce. A writer of Edna O'Brien's skills and experience could easily use the O'Donnell murders as an imaginative springboard without being so explicit. The explicitness, indeed, is arguably an aesthetic as well as a moral mistake. The imperative at work here appears to be far more to do with the selling than with the writing of a book.

In the Forest by Edna O'Brien is published by Weidenfeld on April 4th