Avid book reader. Lover of fantasy, contemporary fiction, short stories and non-fiction. This blog is a work in progress - and it will likely always be that way.
Last year, when I started dipping my toes into short stories, it was clear that there seem to be 3 grandmasters of the genre: Alice Munro, Grace Paley and Edna O'Brien. Discovering that the latter had a collection coming out that covers 5 decades of writing, I was literally jumping up and down.
You needn’t be a literary genius to understand why Edna O’Brien achieved Grandmaster-Status. It’s obvious from the get-go. She writes with enormous depth and elegance, and often needs but a few pages to get this done. In this day and age where people only seem to consider something 'a proper story' when it’s 300 pages at least, it’s good someone reminds us how powerful a 10 page story can be.
Edna O’Brien has a very peculiar writing style, which I struggle to describe but I've settled on a very physical writing style, in the sense that whatever she describes immediately becomes a very, very real thing in my mind.
She evokes Ireland to me in a brilliant way - it is impossible not to see and smell the Irish landscapes she describes. But she does the same in how she captures characters and their (mostly flawed) relationships. They become so real: I’m not just reading about these people, I can feel their emotions, even though O’Brien herself isn’t writing very emotionally at all. She just describes, but I respond on a very emotional level. Few authors manage to do this in so few words.
Add to that plenty of powerful opening lines, and you’re in for a treat. Go on, open the green iron gate that is the opening sentence to a story called 'The Connor Girls', and let's talk about the stories:
“To know them would be to enter an exalted world. To open the stiff green iron gate, to go up their shaded avenue and to knock on their white hall door was a journey I yearned to make.”
Since these are selected stories, it’s impossible to find one general theme, but there are a few returning ones nonetheless:
The innocence of childhood: “As a treat, my grandmother let me smell a ball of nutmeg, which was kept in a round tin that had once held cough pastilles.”.
Many of the stories have a coming of age element to it, where a girl realizes that what once was the centrum of her world and what seemed so important is really fully trivial. And whether or not we’ll ever be asked to tea by the Connor girls, it’s likely we won’t miss much.
Complicated relationships, especially mother-daughter relationships: “[My mother], she insisted that literature was a precursor to sin and damnation, whereas I believe it was the only alchemy that there was.”
Misunderstood daughters and their choices, that follow whenever mothers and daughters don’t abide by the same rules. “It seemed to her that she always held people to her ear, the way her mother held eggs, shaking them to guess at their rottenness, but unlike her mother she chose the very ones that she would have been wise to throw away.”
And then I’m not even talking about the numerous love affairs yet.
The massive influence of religion on daily life, on children and their upbringing, comes back in quite a few stories. Sometimes a character is introduced with the important sidenote ‘that he is a protestant’, but sometimes it goes very deep: “Somewhat precipitately and unknown to my parents I had become engaged to a man who was not of our religion. Defying threats of severing bonds, I married him and incurred the wrath of family and relatives just as Miss Amy had done, except that I was not there to bear the brunt of it. Horrible letters, some signed and some anonymous, used to reach me and my mother had penned an oath that we would never meet again, this side of the grave.”
(Yes, you can add this quote to the complicated mother-daughter-relationships as well.)
Last but not least, she does not avoid some of the tragedies in Irish history:
The mass exodus of emigration workers when jobs were too scarce in Ireland; and the identity loss you inevitably get after years abroad. ”He doesn’t belong in England and ditto Ireland,’ Adrian said, and, tapping his temple to emphasise his meaning, added that exile is in the mind and there’s no cure for that.”
And a graciously neutral story about the conflict surrounding Northern-Ireland:
“He had fought for what he believed in, which was for his country to be one, one land, one people and not have a shank of it cut off.” (…) “It had begun to drizzle. A brooding quiet filled the entire landscape and the trees drank in the moisture. There would be another death to undo his and still another and another in the long grim chain of reprisals. Hard to think that in the valleys murder lurked, as from the meadow there came not even a murmur, the lambs in their foetal sleep, innocent of slaughter.”
To be clear, this is me being enormously restrictive in the number of quotes I share in this review. The original version of this review had nearly three times more quotes. I guess it's just easy to quote when the writing is this good!
Disclaimer: This book has been provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from the pre-published copy and may be altered or omitted from the final copy (though I hope not!).