Edna O’Brien: Commentary

Bruce Arnold
John Broderick
Nuala O’Faolain
Philip Roth
Mary Salmon
Raymonde Popot
Anatole Broyard
Ray Connolly
Eileen Battersby
James F. Clarity
Nicholas A. Basbanes
Rory Brennan
Maria Alvarez
Nick Hornby
David Hanley
M. P. Gillespie
Katie Donovan
Christine St. Peter
Patricia Craig
Fintan O’Toole
Eddie Holt
Mary Morrissey
Declan Kiberd
Anne Enright
Elisabeth Mahoney
R. F. Foster
Miriam O’Callaghan
Ed Vulliamy
Julie Myerson
John McCourt
Sally Rooney

Bruce Arnold, review of The Lonely Girl [with novels by Jack White], in The Dubliner (July-Aug. 1962): ‘The Lonely Girl by Edna O’Brien is concerned with a form of terror. In her previous novel it drove the heroine from County Clare to Dublin in order to escape it; in this one it drives her to England. Her central character, and, to be strict, the only one that really comes to life, is the same girl, Caithleen, and she is pursued relentlessly by a prying, vicious, celibate stupidity. Her fear is amply justified by the country and the people which she depicts. To a person forcibly rooted in a rural existence among the narrow-minded and the drunk, the fields and rocks and clean blue skies become as and and sterile and lonely as the streets of London. People, in this case pathetic, embittered, and malevolent people, poison the world and drive out the sensitive. Her story is of the love affair in Dublin between Caithleen and a married man much older than herself. Her father in Clare hears of it and attempts-with a bishop, fists, boots, self pity, force-to bring her back to the Christian influences of her own squalid home and boozy relatives in the bleak countryside of Clare. It isn’t for Caithleen the bright lights or easy money which entice her away. She is driven. She wants a measure of liberty, the freedom to love whom she chooses, and by the end of the book she has got it. This is to take Edna O’Brien at a more serious level than she intends, and to underline the rather dark spring from which the novel flows. It is in fact a delightfully written book, light, moving and filled with a wistful sentiment which, with the caustic and malevolent Irish wit of Baba (so successful in The Country Girls; less so, here) never degenerates. / The Lonely Girl is already banned, like its predecessor. The reason, probably, is that Edna O’Brien has the effective knack of [68] combining the explicit with the general. When the heroine’s father and his cronies are beating up her lover, Caithleen is conscious of her own cowardice, of the dust in her nose, making her want to sneeze, and of the cow dung on the boots of the men. A similarly inconsequential but organic use of detail in describing the scenes of love-making is effective for the novel, but obviously too much for the censors. Jack White, at a more metaphysical level than Edna O’Brien, writes about adultery and fornication. Not exclusively, but these things figure fairly largely in the relationship of the man and women in his society.’ (pp.68-69.[ top ]

John Broderick, review of Mother Ireland in The Critic, 35 (Winter 1976), pp72-73; ‘One would think that Miss Edna O’Brien would be content with telling her experience in childhood and youth over and over again in her novels. But no such luck. Here she comes again with her version of Ireland, and the effect it had on her development.’ (Quoted in Werner Huber, op. cit., 1993.) Note: Broderick is quoted as calling O’Brien a semi-literate sensationalist and ‘a basement bargain Molly Bloom’ (Patrick Maume, “John Broderick”, in RIA Dictionary of Irish Biography, RIA 2009.)

Nuala O’Faolain, ‘Edna O’Brien’, in Ireland Today [Irish na Roinne Gnothai Eachtracha/Bulletin of the Dept. of Foreign Affairs], No. 1,0001 (Sept. 1983), pp.10-13. ‘[...] This structure, where a soft girl is surrounded by stronger characters, and above all by men who victimise her, is amazingly tenacious in Edna O’Brien’s work. Over and over the heroine commits herself to single-minded dependence on a man, usually older and usually foreign. Over and over his betrayal of the woman is the plot of her life and of the book. Only the details vary. [...] One can take it that some personal event is at the heart of this recurring trauma. Edna O’Brien is not a writer within a conscious literature. She owes nothing to any predecessor or to any tradition. Her books are evidently the product of experience, an experience so tragic that each book inevitably works its way towards a reenactment. [...] These plots, detached from their contexts, may sound like grand guignol. It is the triumph of Edna O’Brien’s fiction that she makes them seem not only important, but profoundly faithful to a logic of the emotions between men and women. One takes her on trust. The centre of each heroine, ‘the pointless purgatory that was her wont ...’ is never argued. It is the given, the basis of the fiction: never an arrived-at conclusion. The absolute and unnerving dependence of an O’Brien woman on a certain kind of love seems occasionally to have its roots in the experience of seeing a beloved mother brutalised by her marriage. But the mother always has some dignity, some gaiety. The daughter-women, alone and ostensibly desirable, have none and want none. [...] Just as she came out of no tradition, she has had no followers or imitators. She is entirely unique; a lone and obsessed chronicler of the wilder shores of love.’ [End; for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews” via index, or direct.)

[ top ]

Philip Roth, ‘A Conversation with Edna O’Brien’, New York Times Book Review (18 Nov. 1984), pp.38-40: Roth quotes Frank Tuohy’s remark that Joyce was the first Irish Catholic to make his experiences and surroundings recognisable, the world of Nora Barnacle had to wait for the fiction of Enda O’Brien. (See Paddy Bullard, review of David Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, in Times Literary Supplement, 13 May 2005, p.22.) Note that Roth greeted her 2015 novel The Little Red Chairs with the remark, ‘the great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece’ (Faber blurb).

Mary Salmon, ‘Edna O’Brien’, in Rüdiger Imhof, ed., Contemporary Irish Novelists [Studies in English and Comparative Literature, ed. Michael Kenneally and Wolfgang Zach] (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 1990), pp.143-58; notes recurrent contrast between ‘the postcolonial, mainly rural, Roman Catholicised society that is often perceived as shapeless, and frequently out of control, and the metropolis or anonymous cosmopolitan suntrap where people may be free-thinking, and life appears well-order’ (p.143). Further: ‘The impossibility of woman living as her authentic self in worlds ruled by men is the theme of Edna O’Brien’s fiction’ (p.143). Salmon quotes William Trevor: ‘the violence, the toughness, the separation of man from woman, the Establishments that breed hypocrisy, the falsehoods that pass for honesty, the stones that remain unturned; all this is grist in a mill that grinds out, with its despair, reality and truth’ (‘Edna O’Brien, in Contemporary Novelists, 1976, p.1052); Bibl. [additional to above] incls. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (London: W. H. Allen, 1977); George Plimpton, ed., Writers at Work “The Paris Review” Interviews, 7th series (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986); Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987). Also, Book Review Digest 1978 (New York: Wilson), p.982; Contemporary Novelists, 2nd edition (London & New York: St James Press, 1976); ‘ReviewInterviews [7th ser.] (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986), cp.254.

Raymonde Popot, ‘Edna O’Brien’s Paradise Lost’, in Patrick Rafroidi & Maurice Harmon, eds., The Irish Novel in Our Time [Cahiers Irlandaises, 4-5] (l’Université de Lille 1975-76), pp.255-85, quotes, quotes at length in ftn. her profession that when in Derry she ‘had a strong wish to be shot by the British Army [...] to bring attention of the world [...] that the British Army had been shooting and are continuing to shoot on Irish soil’; she also admits a second reason for her ‘momentary death wish’ was the desire to say to her ‘own people, that is to say the Catholics’ that ‘I feel for you. I am with you. I don’t know how else to express it.’ (Popot, p.285.)

Anatole Broyard, “The Rotten Luck of Kate and Baba’, review of The Country Girls Trilogy, and Epilogue, in New York Times (11 March 1986): “[...] In an epilogue written for this volume, Baba stands in for Miss O’Brien, looking back after 20 years on Kate’s life and her own. The style here is full of forced energy - slang, verbal jitters and epithets - in what seems a retrospective attempt to modernize the trilogy. When Kate comes to a sorry end, Baba represents her as a defeated romantic, a victim of “bastards” and “brigands.’’ She shifts the responsibility for Kate’s fall onto the men she met, but it’s hard to see the justice of this, for there can be no defeat without a trial, an effort, an aspiring after something. For all the talk about romanticism, Kate never seriously risks herself. She fails by default. / Like Kate, Miss O’Brien too sees the world through “;wronged eyes,” and the success of her career suggests that, in literature at least, two wrongs make a right. While feminists have not been fond of her work because of her heroines’ chasing after men, The Country Girls Trilogy is a powerful argument for feminism. To watch Kate and Baba and their various partners making war, not love, reminds us of ignorant armies that clash by night. / A question nags at us about the body of Miss O’Brien’s work: why is her women’s luck so bad? After all the ironies and sexual politics have been acknowledged, the fact remains that other women manage to get along - or at least to amuse themselves - with men without murdering them, as the heroine does in “’I Hardly Knew You’’ (1977). The women in the later books are attractive, intelligent, witty - surely they could do better if the author let them. [...; &c.; for full text, see RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.]

Ray Connolly, ‘School was madder than Jean Brodie: Edna O’Brien talks to Ray Connolly’, in The Times Saturday Review [‘A Childhood’, feature-column and interview-article introducing Lantern Slides (23 June 1990), p.62: ‘To the people of Tuam Graney […] The Country Girls was an act of treachery’; ‘her mother’s disappointment made her unhappy, but her disapproval made her feel like a criminal’; youngest, with a brother and two sisters; both parents lived in New York before she was born; her father an archetypal Irishman who lived like a gentleman, a state of affairs that became increasingly difficult as […] his wealth decreased; her mother a handsome, powerhouse of a mountain woman, to whom she believed she was over-attached and who wrote to her almost daily when Edna moved away to England; house built on site of another burned by Black and Tans; O’Brien remarks, ‘It was a sad and troubled house. Heart-breaking. There was great turmoil. I cannot remember any jokes, or us all sitting down to have supper.’ O’Brien gives an account of school-days as Gaeilge with a neurotic teacher; of growing up in a house without books and the arrival of a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, handed round the village page by page; of religious excesses in the chapel; ‘Every day of my life I would go there to pray and bob up and down in from of the stations of the cross like a lunatic. I was obsessed with sanctity and becoming a saint and would mortify myself by not eating and drinking salt water. It went on for years. / Perhaps it was because I wanted us to be happy […] The men would be on one side and the women on the other. And if you didn’t receive Holy Communion, as my sister didn’t one day, then it was noted because everyone watched everyone, so obviously my sister was in sin.’ Sent to convent at Lough Rea [sic], Co. Galway, ‘a dismal spit, grey stone with high gates and a grey lake; formed secret attachment to a nun: “I was so in love with her, as in love with her as I’ve ever been with any man, and I haven’t been in love many times in my life. All the getting up at six o’clock, doing exercises, going to Mass every day, none of it mattered because I was so in love. If she knew she didn’t let on, but sometimes she would shout at me, and that’s a form of love. And she gave me little presents, some holy pictures, things like that. / I always think of it as autumn because that was when I went there ... with the mist, and the smell of clay and the chrysanthemums in the flowerbeds and the nuns would be walking m one direction with their eyes averted while we girls would be straggling around in threes and fours in the other.” Captivated by the Shannon Players; brother decides to study medicine; Edna sent to Dublin to work in chemist’s shop at 16; “I did everything. Chekhov once said that the think about his childhood was that he had no childhood, and I had no childhood there, either. /Now I see girls and they have leisure, they have clothes, they go to the gym and to dinner and drink champagne and peach juice. God, I was like a slave. / I never had dates, not that I was much to look at anyway. I worked 11 hours a day, 9am to 8pm, and then I would get on my bicycle and cycle to lectures. And for this hard labour I earned the glorious sum of seven shillings and sixpence a week. Charles Dickens complained about getting a guinea in Victorian times, but this was in 1950.” Wrote short pieces as Fabiola [pseud.] for in-house magazine of transport company for which her sister worked; delivered pieces by hand to save stamps; numerous rejections; began to build a library with income (Eliot, Joyce); elopement with a divorced man, two sons and move to England; flat in London barren, inhuman no-man’s-land’; found work reading for publisher; came to attention of Hutchinson editor Iain Hamilton; received advance of £50 to write a novel; “I had never had any money in my life before. That was in 1958. I remembers I spent the money on housewifey things, like buying a sewing machine. Then I had to write the book, which I did very quickly. The book was The Country Girls.” [&c.]

Eileen Battersby, interview with Edna O’Brien, Irish Times (12 Sept. 1992), “Weekend” [q.p.]; O’Brien describes the way in which her books and her life create the impression on her audience of someone who is ‘buoyant and illiterate’, and speak finally of her present dedication to the fact of being a woman writer who lives alone in London, with ‘all the optimism of the girl who left Co. Clare plus her history - her marriage, her motherhood, her failures and successes, the love affairs, the problematic love affairs, and the constant daily dilemma of trying to write something good which will make her seem less illiterate and less buoyant.’

James F. Clarity, ‘Casting a Cold Eye on Irish Life and Death’, [interview] The New York Times (9 Jan. 1995), ‘Books’ pp.B1 & B6; O’Brien talks about ‘why the Irish literary establishment seems, at long last, to be accepting her as a worthy if expatriate author.’

[ top ]

Nicholas A. Basbanes, ‘O’Brien Writes of Homeland’, in The Gainesville Sun (15 June 1997),[q.p.]; quotes from an interview: ‘Distance always sharpens your perception’; ‘I write about Ireland because it is the place I know best’; rejects notion that she is an ‘cxpatriate’ writer in the tradition of James Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey and Beckett; ‘I don’t like that term expatriate at all’; ‘I do like to move around a bit, because writing requires a great deal of privacy [...] You can have that anywhere, I suppose, just as much in a city as in the country, but what it mainly entails is that you can’t have much of a social life’; ‘[William] Faulkner and Joyce, they are my two masters, they are the ones I read every day of my life. They are both dark writers, and like them, I, too, prefer writing about dark things. Most of Shakespeare’s greatest plays are dark; the great Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, is dark’; thus she writes books that ‘depict the deepest recesses of human nature, the turmoils, the ambiguities, the fears - all the kinds of things that superficial writers typically avoid’; ‘The Dublin that James Joyce treated in Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and, above all, Ulysses, is not Dublin, it is Joyce’s Dublin, and it is more real to me than the city that I once lived in’; ‘That is what Joyce does, that is what Faulkner does. They create a fictional, mythical, totally convincing, archetypal world that happens also to bear some relation to a real world. But you have to have the two. Unless you have the archetypal reach or breadth, the books are short lived’ [as a writer]. (Supplied in Internet by Suzanna Hicks [email].)

Rory Brennan, review of James Joyce (1999), in Books Ireland (Feb. 2000), pp. 17-18; finds that she ‘puns so much that one doesn’t know whether half the text is illiteracy or weary attempts at wit’; considers the narrative ‘as simple as any Mills & Boon editor could every yearn for’ and condemns the book as ‘Joycean’ in the worst sense. (p.17.)

Maria Alvarez, review of Down by the River (1996), [q.source]; notes that the accused father tells his interrogator, “you have sex on the brain”; cites phrase, “rosaries and ovaries”; 14-year old Mary reminds us of earlier O’Brien adolescent heroines, intelligent, sensitive, and saddled with a violent, drunken, self-indulgent father [who[ abuses her sexually. The mother dies. Pregnancy, escape, a thwarted attempt to abort her baby, and the transformation of a private tragedy into a public scandal follow’; remarks on a Joycean image of a country covered with snow at the end, before we hear Mary sing; ‘It is one of the genuinely touching moments in a story which should be harrowing, but which is marred by problems of style and deficiencies of structure’; remarks juxtapositioning of rape and the copulation of horses, ‘both described with the same breathless exuberance’; also notes problem with the ‘celebratory lyricism’ of Mary even in the throes of sexual abuse: ‘Mush. We, different wets. His essence, hers. Their two essences one. O quenched and empty world.’ Also, on her father’s genitals: “with the saucer leaf of the water-lily and that on him will linger the sweet lotus of the flower”, here called ‘mawkishly - and worryingly - vague’. Alvarez concludes that crushing overwriting makes empathy impossible; suggests that the narrative should have been given to the protagonist.

Nick Hornby, review of Time and Tide in Times Literary Supplement [q.d.] 1992), writes of the ‘usual tough victim’ as its heroine, and considers the prose ‘ramshackle’ to the point of incomprehensibility. He remarks the absence not only of ‘O’Brien’s customary emotional truth, but of any verisimilitude at all.’ Among the incidents of the novel, Nell is driven by sexual frustration to ask the proprietor of the local shop to service her; he and his girlfriend Olga move into her home, and Olga leaves the gas on, blowing Nell up. The writing when she deals with the drowning of Nell’s eldest boy Paddy is said to improve, ‘a much-loved writer suffering from a severe loss of form.’ Hornby is a novelist (Fever Pitch, Sept. 1992).

David Hanley, interview with Edna O’Brien, ‘Writer in Profile’ RTE 1, 9.30pm, 20 May 1992. Speaking of her latest novel, Time and Tide, she mentions those inevitable losses - separation from one’s mother, the scattering of children - which comprise that ‘particular pain [...] which in my case produces good prose.’ She never seems to have escaped the ‘mega-disgrace’ of her first novel, which her mother, who was both ‘charming’ and ‘a charnel house of feeling’, never commented upon except to tell her that ‘people in Scariff thought that I should be kicked naked through the streets.’ After her mother’s death, O’Brien found the copy of The Country Girls which she had sent to her parents in a trunk. The page dedicating it to them had been torn out and some of the words expurgated with thick black ink. (Irish Times, Saturday, 23 May 1992.)

M. P. Gillespie: ‘O’Brien draws inspiration from the model of Joyce’s fiction, and she plays upon ouor expectations created by memories of his to infuse more humor into her work by subtle contrasts with Joyce’s. To say that she draws upon the Irish comic tradition to feminise Joycean themes would in and of itself trivialise the work of both writers. On the other hand, t use that idea as a point of departure … acknowledges the interpretative multiplicity inherent in their respective stories. (Michael Patrick Gillespie, ‘She was too Scrupulous Always: Edna O’Brien and the Comic Tradition’, in Theresa O’Connor, ed., The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers, Florida UP 1996, p.122.)

Katie Donovan, review of James Joyce (Phoenix), in The Irish Times ([21 Oct. 2000]), notes colourful distillation and remarks, ‘her insight makes one wonder why writers don’t write biographies of each other more often.’ Further quotes: ‘writers have to be monsters to create’, and: ‘no other writer so effulgently and so ravenously recreated a city .. for him as for Sophocles, greaet stories began in the family cauldron’.

Christine St. Peter, ‘Petrifying Time: Incest Narratives from Contemporary Ireland’, in Contemporary Irish Fiction: Themes, Tropes, Theories, ed. Liam Harte& Michael Parker (London: Macmillan 2000): ‘Down by the River has the narrative shape and rhythm of a Gothic novel, with a brave and desperate girl determined to save herself from the monstrous forces that pursue her. Beginning with her haunted home, the whole country becomes her prison and even when Mary finally escapes from the actual jail that the anti-abortion campaigners create for her and is offered protection by her pro-choice defenders, she still finds no peace.’ (p.140; quoted in Aveen McManus, “Narratives of Childhood - A Comparative Study”, MA Diss., Univ. of Ulster 2005, p.70.)

Patricia Craig notices Edna O’Brien, James Joyce (Phoenix), in Times Literary Supplement, “In Brief: Biography” (22 Dec. 2000), calling it ‘a pungent and high-spirited contribution to Joyce studies.’

Fintan O’Toole, ‘A fiction text too far’, article [not review] on Edna O’Brien In the Forest; makes reference to Sebastian Barry’s Hinterland: ‘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 drams mentioned [e.g., Conspiracy and Hinterland], however, have one thing in common. They deal with events that are very clearly in the public domain … / 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 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. […/] They were a dreadful catastrophe visited on innocent people by a disturbed, deranged man. They did not and do not have a public meaning.’ O’Toole notes that The House of Splendid Isolation is based on the character of Dominic McGlinchey, ‘a notorious killer who has deliberately imposed himself upon public consciousness’ and argues that ‘it should have been clear, nevertheless, that the Brendan O’Donnell murders were different.’ Quotes Kenneth Tynan’s objections to Truman Capote’s ‘exploitation;’ of the killers in In Cold Blood and insists that ‘there is simply no artistic need for so close an intrusion into other people’s grief … The only reason to do otherwise is to be found in the realm, not of art but of commerce … The explicitness, indeed, is arguably an aesthetic as well as a moral mistake [… &c.]’ (The Irish Times, 2 March, 2002, “Weekend”, p.1.)

Eddie Holt, [TV Review], The Irish Times (18 May 2002), ““Weekend””, offers a critique of True Lives: Murder in the Forest, which features Edna O’Brien at the grave of real-life victims, writing: ‘O’Brien seems to believe that she has a right to subsume Imelda Riney’s life into her own aesthetic because she, O’Brien, is Imelda Riney. O’Brien grew up a few miles from Craig Forest, where Riney was murdered and both were artists. [...] O’Brien seems to be putting words into their mouths as she entranced them. She takes similar artistic licence with the life of Brendan O’Donnell [...] Murder in the Forest is no more or less cheap thatn Real Crime: Blood on her Hands [...]’.

Mary Morrissey, review of Edna O’Brien, In the Forest (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson), in The Irish Times (23 March 2002), “Weekend” [q.p.], writes: ‘O’Brien is often criticised for being out of touch with the real Ireland - wherever that may be. But the landscape and the townlands, the people who populate her woods and villages in this book, seem piercingly familiar and entirely apt. This is not a landscape of bachelor farmers and devout spinster, but one of Germans, Swedes and Dutch, New-Agers, artists, hippies and respectable retirees.’ Speaks of the central characters O’Kane, Eily Ryan and her son as ‘more problematical’, remarking that the bruised institutional history of the murderer make of him a ‘stereotypical case history of male Irish youth these days’. Argues that ‘fiction and polemical generality do not bedfellows make’ and concludes, ‘[t]he trouble with In the Forest is there’s not half-enough fiction in it’; ‘the ghost of reality keeps on intruding’; ‘being “symbolised” like that denies both people - and characters in the novel - their authenticity and, ultimately, their humanity.’

Declan Kiberd, ‘Growing Up Absurd: Edna O’Brien and The Country Girls’, in Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil (Sao Paolo: Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005): ‘[...] Edna O’Brien has reserved particular praise for the quality of James Joyce’s letters to his partner Nora Barnacle, which deal with “her own sexual prowess, no small thing for a convent girl from Galway and a radical thing in defiance of that male illusion whereby women were expected to maintain a mystique and conceal their deepest sexual impulses.” (James Joyce, p.74-5.) Once again what is notable in her commentary is not just her insistence that sexuality and maternity are not contradictory, but also a pained recognition (shared with Joyce) that sexual and personal fulfillment may be considered irreconcilable in a pornographic culture which sees a woman’s full involvement in sexual activity as conditional upon her erasure as an individual (and even, in some extreme cases, as conditional upon her death). What attracted Joyce to Nora Bernacle may have been what interested Caithleen in Mr. Gentleman: the sense of “a hazy and sensual” disposition, which might be remoulded upon the lines best pleasing to the remoulder. Bringing such awesome expectations to the sexual relation, such persons were bound for disappointment, and for the search for some type of compensation in the more trivial pleasures of daily existence. / Like O’Brien, Joyce never fully escaped the net of Roman Catholicism. Childhood, says O’Brien, “occupies at most twelve years of our early life [...] and yet the bulk of the rest of our lives is shadowed or coloured by that time”. (Grace Eckley, Edna O’Brien, NJ: Bucknell UP 1974, p.75; here pp.158-59; see full text in Ricorso Library, “Criticism”, infra.)

Anne Enright, ‘Murderous love’ [review of The Light of Evening], in The Guardian ([Sat.] 14 Oct. 2006): ‘Edna O’Brien was the first Irish woman ever to have sex. For some decades, indeed, she was the only Irish woman to have had sex - the rest just had children. This was a heroic and sometimes difficult position to maintain in the national imagination, and it is no wonder that she occasionally sounds a little defensive. O’Brien’s women criticise themselves so much that you wonder why anyone else would want to join in. Still, they sometimes do join in, and she remains an unsettled, unsettling figure within the Irish literary pantheon. If only she would give us heroines with the candour and clarity of Caithleen in her first book, The Country Girls - good, honest, peasant sexiness, fresh from the convent school - then we would know where we stood. But she will not. Her women are not safe from the world. These are porous creatures: O’Brien writes about women who are not strong; they are subject to doubts, panics, vanities and confusions - and they know all this, and it still does not make them strong. Dignity is their solace, and dignity makes them foolish, and they are always undone by desire. They are, as you may gather, completely honest, completely courageous, and heroic on the slenderest and most absolute of terms. [...] The Country Girls presented us with a young woman who was sexually interested in sad old men - and was completely cheerful about it. Over the course of the next several books, however, damage rose to the surface of O’Brien’s work, like a slow bruise. It became apparent what was actually remarkable about her writing, what had been remarkable all along: it was not sex, at all, but honesty.’ (See full-text version - as attached.)

[ top ]

Elisabeth Mahoney, [review of radio], in The Guardian (25 Sept. 2007) [Tues]: ‘It’s always a pleasure to hear Edna O’Brien. She was interviewed on Woman’s Hour (BBC4) yesterday, talking about her first novel, The Country Girls. Like the five novels that followed it, the book was banned in her native Ireland, and all were burned by the priest in the village she was from. That wasn’t going to stop her, though. “I always wanted to write”, she said, slowly and carefully in her slightly grand voice, “and I still always want to write. It’s a fervour.” / There was passion and sensuality in everything she said. While writing The Country Girls, in the weeks after leaving Ireland, she never stopped crying, she explained. “I missed the country and the locale I had wanted to leave”, she recalled. “Writing captures what is gone and seeks to capture what cannot exist.” There were reminiscences, too, of the library in the village where she grew up. It had only one book: Rebecca. “It was loaned by the page”, said O’Brien, with a cackle. “Unfortunately not consecutive.” Though she no longer lives there, Ireland, she said in a faraway, dreamy voice, “is what feeds me whether I’m in it or out of it”. But she will ultimately return, she conceded. “I have a wonderful grave there”, she said softly, “so I will be going back.” [07.10.2007.]

R. F. Foster, Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change 1970-2000 (London: Allen Lane: 2007), relates that Archbishop John Charles McQuaid had called Charles Haughey ‘to his palace in order to show him a copy of Edna O’Brien’s scandalous novel The Country Girls and approvingly noted the rising politician’s disgust: “Like so many decent Catholic men with growing families, McQuaid recorded, “he was just beaten by the outlook and descriptions.”’ (Foster, op. cit., p.43, quoting John Cooney, John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland, Dublin: O’Brien Press 1999, p.348.)

Miriam O’Callaghan, ‘Miriam Meets … Edna O’Brien and Niall Buggy’: ‘[...] Edna talked about her famous Saturday night parties. “I gave away all I had and all I earned in prodigal parties”. Everyone from the Rolling Stones to Princess Margaret came to her home. Her mother used to supply poitin for these parties “But Princess Margaret never had any, she drank whiskey.” / “Judy Garland came one night....looked at the room with the saddest, baffled expression and left … I have met many people, but the most magnetic person I ever met was Marlon Brando. He was lean and brilliant, he had that animal quality, yet very intelligent.” When Miriam asked her did she find him attractive, Edna replied, “I did, but I have always fallen in love with bastards and he didn’t seem to be a bastard. Anyone would find him attractive - a man or a woman.” / From an early age Edna had a desire to be an actress. After failing to secure an audition with the travelling theatre that came to Scarriff, she managed to get an audition at the Harcourt Terrace home of Miceal Mc Liammoir. “He was a wonderful man in his generosity of spirit. He was very nice to me when he swept out of the room after my audition. But he knew that there was no go, no future for my acting.” / Edna also talked about writing about love: “I have written about love because if you think about it … Love has been very central to our lives... When we think about it, the people who we have loved and who we have hated are central cast in our thoughts. So it is natural.” / Edna has just had a hip replacement and is approaching 80 years old. Miriam asked her about the experience of ageing: “My own mother, as she got older, she got deeper and less judgemental and that is something I would wish for anyone, including myself. But there is the sense as well that you will not be in love again, or if you are, it is like the Portuguese poet “from afar I shall love you, from that calm distance from which love is longing and passion perseverance”.’ (See RTE Radio 1, online; accessed 23.03.2010.)

Thomas Kilroy, ‘Our great teller of the short story’, review of Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien, in The Irish Times (12 Feb. 2011), Weekend Review, p.11: ‘[...] Like the American South, Ireland has its rich tradition of oral storytelling, and Edna O’Brien is the great contemporary heir to this in the short story. Walter Benjamin once wrote about how orality was subsumed into literary art in another such culture, the Russian, when analysing the art of Nikolai Leskov. It’s a question of preserving the oral energy on the printed page and making the oral engage with literary technique. We just don’t simply read such stories; we also listen to them. [...] There is, however, something else here this time around in addition to young girls and their dreams. We pride ourselves in this country on an absence of class. But, of course, we are as class-driven as anywhere else. Green Georgette is a study of the seeds and growth of snobbery in an Irish village with all the pretence and stratification that you might find in a metropolis. [...] A volume of short stories depends on variety, and there is that here. “Manhattan Medley”, for instance, stands apart from the other stories in content and in the way in which its voice is used. This is like overhearing the musings of a very contemporary, mature urban sophisticate addressing an absent lover. Like so many of the other stories this is about loneliness, but it is never maudlin. Instead it is driven by its obsession. The power of this is palpable and reminds one that O’Brien has written in greater detail of sexual obsession before this and with a command that few can match.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

John Banville, Introduction to The Love Object: Selected Stories of Edna O’Brien (2013): ‘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. [...] 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. [...] 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.[...] She is, simply, one of the finest writers of our time.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

[ top ]

Ed Vulliamy, ‘Edna O’Brien: from Ireland’s cultural outcast to literary darling’, in The Guardian (11 Oct. 2015): ‘[...] Criticism of O’Brien’s work has been robust and sometimes repellent, focusing on what has been called her “stage Irish persona”. In an essay titled The Whores on the Half Doors, Benedict Kiely defended her writing, while pointing out O’Brien’s complex relationship with her own country. In her book Mother Ireland, O’Brien described Ireland as “a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot and of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare”. Her particular feminism, while offending some, was not forged from philosophical doctrine, but from the realistic observations of the men and women around her. “Ours indeed was a land of shame,” she wrote, “a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.” / O’Brien’s autobiography has a kernel, an unforgettable scene. Beckett visits her hotel room in Paris not long after O’Brien has taken LSD with the radical psychiatrist RD Laing, whose patient she was. When Beckett arrives, she is still in an aftermath of the “weird visitations” that ensued. Beckett takes a miniature whiskey from the mini-bar and talks about “home”, recalling the barbaric treatment meted out to Joyce and others, and asking whether O’Brien’s intention to be buried there was in pursuit of “a perpetual dose of disgust”. This from a man, as she noted, who had written more lovingly of the ditches and the daisies and the ruinstrewn land “with a beautiful and imperishable loneliness”. / One wonders whether O’Brien was speaking also for herself. [...] ’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

Julie Myerson, ‘The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien review - a chilling masterpiece’, in the Guardian (8 Nov 2015): ‘[...] O’Brien’s eye for detail is exemplary. All the quotidian detail of modern life, both rural and urban - even its omnipresent technology - is done with insight and wit. The garda’s mobile phone loses its signal in woodland. A woman at a book club walks around with her phone held aloft to show off her new-born foal. And as Fidelma and Vlad pick at their pre-consummation dinner, an elderly porter rushes to print out a leaflet illustrating the “mahogany newel posts” of the stairs they had earlier glancingly admired. Devices that shouldn’t work - conveying lengthy, quasi documentary-style accounts of war through a dream, for instance, or even the dreaded long chunks of dialogue in a kind of foreign speak - work perfectly. / Present-day London too: the B&Bs and charity organisations, the needless form-filling, the weary shift workers who are “night people, one step away from ghosts” and their harsh employers who are themselves exploited. All of this is conveyed with astonishing grit and clarity. Young people are every bit as nuanced and convincing as older ones: a beady six-year-old girl, glimpsed just a few times, inhabits the page with just as much weight and heft as a war-traumatised young waiter. And throughout it all, the presence of Doctor Vlad - alternately hot and cold, angry, cunning, charismatically reasonable and pitifully banal - somehow manages to infect every page. / The real genius of this novel - and I don’t use the word lightly - is to take us right up close to worlds that we normally only read about in newspapers, to make us sweat and care about them, and at the same time create something that feels utterly original, urgent, beautiful. It’s hard to believe that any novel could do more. And it’s hard - no, almost impossible - to believe that O’Brien is in her ninth decade, for this is absolutely the work of a writer in her prime and at the very height of her phenomenal powers.’ (See full-text copy in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

John McCourt, ‘After Ellmann: The State of Joycean Biography’, in A Companion to Literary Biography, ed. Richard Bradford (Wiley 2018): ‘Edna O'Brien’s (1999) quirky [535], gushing volume which gives Stan Gebler Davies’s much earlier James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist (1975) a good run for its money as the most unreliable mainstream version of the life. O’Brien’s agenda had more to do with her own literary legacy - her conscious self-casting as the female counterpart of Joyce - than it had to do with presenting any fresh reading of the writer's life as anything other than a literary predecessor, an exemplar, and a presumed counterpart.’ (p.535-35).

Sally Rooney, ‘Misreading Joyce’, in The Paris Review (7 Dec. 2022) - writes: ’[...] In her wonderful new play Joyce’s Women, staged recently here at the Abbey, the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien asks: “Who owns James Joyce?” It strikes me as an endlessly complex and interesting question. But when it comes to the question of who owns “Ulysses”, I believe the contemporary reader—perhaps particularly the contemporary novelist—must permit themselves to answer: I do.’ (See full-text copy - attached.)

[ top ]