Love and loss in a too small world
The Love Object: Selected Stories By Edna O’Brien Faber & Faber, 560pp, $39.99 (HB)
LIKE so many Irish writers, Edna O’Brien had to leave Ireland to deal with it. “I felt oppressed and strangulated from an early age,” she told The Paris Review in 1984. O’Brien eventually fled to London in 1960 on the back of her doomed marriage: as a moat, the English Channel gave her just enough oxygen. She completed her first novel, The Country Girls, in a matter of weeks after arriving.
“All the time I was writing it I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. On publication it was burned in her home village.
In the next half-century, O’Brien became Ireland’s most compelling phoenix. The past never stopped trying to smother, even as she picked through its ash to rise again. How familiar this cycle is for small-town writers: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, William Trevor. So often hated for loving the thing they left behind. As if all us who are born, live and die don’t do the same. More broadly, though, this cycle feels like a metaphor for love and loss, two emotions that scorch through The Love Object.
The book, which collects five decades of O’Brien’s short fiction, reads like a dispatch from a forest blaze. Affairs flare up, then fizzle, leaving participants doused in despair, searching for the slippery spark of hope. Girls grow up in tiny villages taught to fear the heat inside them. It is their own fault if they get too close to the flames. There are no refining fires in O’Brien’s world, just ones that engulf the world, reduce homes to rubble, take everything.
Like Alice Munro and John Updike, O’Brien seems to have near-perfect recall for what made her. In her case this is County Clare. Here is a world damp with hen mash and rhubarb wine: “cows on the fair days at home and the farmers hitting them as they slid and slithered over the muddy streets”. Talismans abound: crosses, relics, letters to lovelorn lasses after bankers on rural assignment go back to the city.
No one in O’Brien’s world anticipates good things. “Though she was always hoping,” says the narrator of The Rug, about her mother. “She never really expected things to turn out well.” O’Brien’s narrators internalise this gloom and the wise among them keep its lesson close. “I saw in her some terrible premonition of sacrifice which I would have to emulate,” says the narrator of Sister Imelda, a tremendous tale about a young girl’s relationship with a nun.
Most of the narrators in The Love Object are women, and O’Brien beautifully conjures their complicated struggle just to be. In A Rose in the Heart of New York, a woman gives birth in a small country house. While the woman’s husband drinks himself belligerent, she bites down