Love and loss in a too small world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Free­man

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

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