Edna OBrien 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. OBriens 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: OBrien 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 Light of Evening hinges on the relationship between a rural Irish mother and her wayward writer daughter; it is rich with the older womans voice. Dear Eleanora, Thanks a million for your all to me and may the New Year bring what is best for you ... The accuracy of OBriens inflections in this portrayal bring a pang of nostalgia for the language of Irish countrywomen: the way they feel nettled instead of annoyed, the coolness that might happen between people instead of a fight, the way they want to cure you, like a sick hen, of the pip.
As the book opens, Dilly is travelling up to a Dublin hospital in what will turn out to be her final days. From her sickbed, she recalls the most vivid part of her life, when she emigrated to America and fell in love. The trials and humiliations of a life in service did not suit her, however, and when her beau seemed to jilt her, she took the offer of a ticket home. There, she married Con, owner of a fine house on the verge of collapse, and together they eked out a shambolic farming life, having two children as they went.
The book is full of petty slights and long-held grudges, wrangles over land and money. They are a messy family, prone to frights and grievance. The father drinks, runs horses and gambles, the daughter bolts, the son plots to deprive his sister of her inheritance. The one thing that holds true throughout is the love Dilly has for her daughter; constant - stolid, almost - this love is indifferent to the outside world. People here say theyll take an action against you for putting them in books and the dead people would take an action if they were alive.
Their relationship is marked by an excruciating exchange of failed gifts, but though the mothers taste is more limited than her daughters, they both love a bit of glamour. Dilly does not pretend to understand her daughter - she does not feel the need to, perhaps - and she cant seem to get in a tizz about her love life: the mothers own regrets give Eleanora licence to love where she can.
And she does. Eleanoras last visit to her mothers sickbed is cut short by her need to rush back to the airport and a disastrous Scandinavian romance. In her haste she leaves her journal behind, and the idea that her mother might have read it tortures her ever after. What is revealed in the journal is not scandalous - it is much more primary and chaotic than that. Eleanora has written, in her slanting hand, about the murderous nature of the love that is between them; the image of her pregnant mother bleeding into the grass, and the way her mothers milk is turned to marble inside her.
Eleanora, like Caithleen, the heroine of OBriens first three books, is sometimes tragically loved by men. She experiences their desire as unsatisfactory, even maddening, her own desires being equally hopeless and misplaced. The reader might wonder what the problem is, why the whole business of love is so terrible to her, why no one can get it together (this is a novel written, after all, by the first Irish woman ever to have sex).
After Dilly dies, a man called Flossie goes to gather moss for her grave. The lining of graves is a forgotten craft but he makes this last trip in order to honour her, because when he was a child he stopped her from killing herself. He did this by standing his ground when he saw her pacing the river bank, though her eyes implored him to leave. This child, a mute witness to Dillys despair, loves her, in a small way, for the rest of his life. This is perhaps what OBriens heroines offer: turbulence, self-destruction, a black mirror for the desires of men.
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 OBriens 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.