TOWARD THE END of her 2012 memoir, Country Girl, Edna O’Brien tells the story of a recent visit to her childhood home in County Clare, Ireland, with the Irish artist Dorothy Cross. It was an opportunity for Cross, whose luminous work explores the boundaries between man-made objects and the natural world, to photograph the house where O’Brien grew up — a house on the border of ruin: “briar, dock, ivy, nettle, and even little, scutty ash trees with tiny shoots making their way in the crevices of the mortar and the rotting window frames.” Once they arrive at the gate, in the early morning frost, they discover that O’Brien’s nephew has misguidedly cleaned the place up:
In his enthusiasm for our arrival, he had removed the very things — the bramble, the ivy, the ash trees, the whole lyrical paraphernalia — which had made the idea of photographing the house so appealing to Dorothy. All the poetry had been forked away. “I can pitch it all back,” he said, a little crestfallen by my dismay.
“The whole lyrical paraphernalia” — that oxymoronic phrase, and the notion that the poetry could be pitched back with a few well-aimed hefts of the fork, are characteristic of Edna O’Brien’s style, which itself teeters on the briary hedge between the natural and the knowing.
O’Brien made her name writing seemingly spontaneous and unstudied fiction about the hopes, loves, and torments of young women in 1960s Ireland and London. Her first novel, The Country Girls, caused a sensation when it was published in 1960 for its portrayal of sexually liberated young girls who reject convent school life and rural mores in favor of the lure of city life (or, a job in a Dublin grocer and a shared room on London’s North Circular Road). In fact, the sex in the novel is minimal — the main character Caithleen (Kate/Cait) Brady doesn’t even lose her virginity until halfway through the second volume of the trilogy, Girl with Green Eyes (published in the United States as The Lonely Girl). The popularity and infamy of the stories sprang not from the portrayal of sexual fulfillment but of hope and desire, all spoken in the winningly direct words of a couple of girls — one impossibly naïve, the other hilariously brazen — on the cusp of womanhood:
“But we want young men. Romance. Love and things,” I said, despondently. I thought of standing under a street light in the rain with my hair falling crazily about, my lips poised for the miracle of a kiss. A kiss. Nothing more. My imagination did not go beyond that.
True, her imagination stretches to being kissed by a much older married neighbor, the (naturally) French Mr. Gentleman: “Paris? I thought of girls and sin at once.” The aura of artlessness in her early novels is so convincing that readers are continually tricked into imagining that the ironies are accidental, a by-product of O’Brien’s immersion in her world, her natural poetic sensibility.
The word “lyrical,” sometimes twinned with “lush,” has repeatedly been used to describe O’Brien’s style, particularly when she is writing about the landscape of the west of Ireland. It is an unhelpful term, in that it is used to describe both a subject matter — the lovingly observed details of the natural world and everyday experience — as well as an attitude, a heightened emotional state. It is perhaps especially unhelpful for O’Brien herself, who is deeply invested in the idea of her own poetic creativity.
In a rather flirty 1984 interview with Philip Roth (he’s the flirt), she described her writing self as subject to the commands of a subconscious force:
This recollection, or whatever it is, invades me. It is not something that I can summon up, it simply comes and I am the servant of it. My hand does the work and I don’t have to think; in fact, were I to think, it would stop the flow. It’s like a dam in the brain that bursts.
Her fiction, she suggested, was brought into being by dreams, chance, or “the welter of emotion stimulated by a love affair.” This is one way of reassuring us that what we get when we read O’Brien is the truth, or at least a conception of truth, which conforms to the shape explored in mid-20th-century psychoanalysis. O’Brien herself was a patient of the famous psychiatrist R. D. Laing. She once described a harrowing experience of taking LSD under his supervision, when she was worried that “the flow” had stopped. From this perspective writing is a product of sensibility rather than craft. It may take time and effort to nurture that sensibility — to feed the creative drive — but the writing itself is easy. O’Brien likes to draw attention to the fact that she was entirely unschooled in the craft of writing and her first novel was written in just three weeks, in snatches of time carved out of the exhausting daily routine of a young mother with two small children. For O’Brien, writing is work and it requires concentration. But it is also the opposite of work, in that thinking is inimical to it (“were I to think, it would stop the flow”). Thinking is the enemy of feeling, and feeling, on this account, is the true language of the novel. The emotions of love, hatred, desire, or despair are the real, and the task of the writer is to access those emotions.
All this is a deeply unfashionable way of talking about writing, and I draw attention to it here not to set O’Brien up for sophisticated censure or to measure her against a fancy theoretical yardstick which rates textuality above the idea of creative genius. Instead, O’Brien’s belief in the truth-value of her own femininity, accessed through dreams and love affairs, is the reason why her novels resonated so widely with women readers through the 1960s and ’70s. It’s also the reason her books eventually fell out of favor, particularly with critics.
O’Brien’s 1960s novels (there are six of them, and a volume of short stories) triumphantly perform the contradictions of a woman writing in a prefeminist moment — a time when women were still thought of as mysterious, including and perhaps especially, to themselves. They are a romance version of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. After all, according to John Osborne (a friend with whom O’Brien stayed when her marriage was disintegrating), “What distinguishes a woman is her lack of imaginative vitality. She will hardly ever do anything for its own sake. Her roots are so deep in sexuality that she is the natural enemy of the visionary, the idealist.” The women in O’Brien’s novels all do, indeed, have their roots deep in sexuality; they are driven by a hopeless longing for love. Attention is all on the inner life. But O’Brien has her cake and eats it, as she argues that sex is also the source of the visionary — the creative force which invades her, and against which she must not think. Indeed for Irish Catholic readers there was an added frisson: the emotional inner world, the sensations of female consciousness, was not only a new mental territory to explore, it was also a substitute for religious faith. “I think love replaced religion for me in my sense of fervour,” she tells Philip Roth. “When I began to look for earthly love (i.e., sex), I felt that I was cutting myself off from God. By taking on the mantle of religion, sex assumed proportions that are rather farfetched. It became the central thing in my life, the goal.” There is a wonderful moment in a 1965 interview with the writer Nell Dunn, in the midst of a discussion of the role of fantasy and dreams in the creative process, when O’Brien innocently applies the Catholic virtue of renunciation to her own desire. She would like, she says, “If I loved someone to be able to approach his mouth and then draw back. However, as I say this, I recognize that restraint can be another form of indulgence. I think balance is what counts.”
There is, then, a great deal at stake in O’Brien’s explorations of desire. A kiss is not just a kiss. Cait Brady’s freedom to imagine a kiss represents a rejection of one kind of inner life for another — the rejection of religion for the transcendence of individual desire. Unsurprisingly, the novels were burned and banned — they were accurately read as reflecting a new state of the nation, one in which the repressions of the church, and its many related institutions, would be challenged by a new religion.
As it happened, the new religion turned out to be money, not love, and certainly not female desire. That likelihood too was archly predicted in her early novels, which, for all their lyricism, are hardheaded about the sexual economy of postwar Ireland. This is an economy that has completely stalled — no one makes money at anything — but in which nothing cannot be bought, especially not women and girls. In an early novel, one of a series of sleazy men tells Cait that she is as beautiful as “the woman with the face on the pound note.” It’s a piece of dialogue that demonstrates a perfect union between an idealized projection of Ireland as a woman, and her commercial value. It is not so much that women are objects to be bartered in a series of exchanges between men, but that women are expected to barter themselves in exchange for the goods they want. It is no surprise that Caithleen’s romance with Mr. Gentleman begins on a shopping trip. He buys her lunch and gets to hold hands with her in return, just as later, a dinner of roast lamb and mint sauce comes with a price to pay. To consume and to be consumed — the lives of all the women in O’Brien’s early works are defined by these twin obligations. Given O’Brien’s sharp eye for commodification, it’s possible that the idea of a mystical creative force powering her writing is so important to her precisely because it is one thing that can’t be bought — though it can, of course, be sold.
Since that extraordinary debut, O’Brien has written nine volumes of short stories, five plays, two memoirs, a book on Joyce, and one on Byron. The Little Red Chairs is her 18th novel. In a career spanning more than 50 years she has kept returning to the matter of Ireland. But rather than the almost accidental pairing of emerging Irish womanhood and emerging Irish modernity, she now holds the mirror up to the nation more and more explicitly. She does not much like what she sees: the greed and hedonism of the Celtic Tiger years, the shunting aside of the old and broken emigrant Irish, the “shovel kings” marooned in London pubs. An obsession with money, she implies, fills the church-shaped gap in secular Ireland. The faith that got a bad press in her early novels was the religiosity of institutions, not the rituals of the church and certainly not the idea of mystery, whose passing she regrets. Nonetheless, Irish critics and readers have taken her to task for being out of touch with contemporary Ireland. Wild Decembers (1999), for example, was one of the novels to which the adjectives “lyrical” and “lush” were liberally applied. It tells the story of a feud between neighboring farms which would not look out of place beside John B. Keane’s 1965 play The Field — except that it is written in such gushing prose:
They say the enemy came in the night, but the enemy can come at any hour, be it dawn or twilight, because the enemy is always there and these people know it, locked in a tribal hunger that bubbles in the blood and hides out on the mountain, an old carcass waiting to rise again, waiting to roar again, to pit neighbour against neighbour and dog against dog in the crazed and phantom lust for a lip of land.
Since the early 1990s, her fiction has insisted on its own seriousness of purpose. It is not just that her subjects are now violence, murder, and abuse, but that they tend to be based on real historical events, particular incidents which she judges to be representative of crises and fault lines within Irish society. Her 1994 novel House of Splendid Isolation explored the relationship between a republican terrorist and the woman whose house he invades, seeking refuge. The character of McGreevy is based on Dominic McGlinchey, a member of the Irish National Liberation Army, whom she interviewed at great length in prison. The 1997 novel Down By the River was a carefully researched account of the “X case,” in which a 14-year-old who had been raped by a neighbor was prevented from traveling to Britain for an abortion. (The ruling was eventually overturned, although the girl had by that time miscarried.) In 2003 she was strongly criticized for her narrative exploration of a triple murder, which occurred in County Clare 10 years before. In the Forest attempts to get inside the heads not only of one of the victims, a young single mother, but also of the perpetrator, a deranged young man who had been abused in a young offenders institution and failed by social services. In order to write it she approached the family of the victims for information and background, but was refused.
All these novels turn on the relationship between women and violent men — it is as though the passionate inner life of her early novels has been lifted out of the realm of everyday experience (what it’s like to long for something to happen, to lose your virginity, to fall in love with the wrong man) and placed in a purgatorial landscape, stalked by evil. It is that relationship and that landscape which lies at the heart of her ambitious new novel, The Little Red Chairs. An epigraph explains the chairs of the title: in 2012, 11,541 plastic seats were laid out on Sarajevo’s main street, to commemorate the dead of the siege of the city 20 years earlier. 643 small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and artillery fired from the surrounding mountains. Turning the page from that epigraph, the reader is immediately introduced to the small town of Cloonoila in County Sligo, Ireland, and its new arrival, a man who looks “like a Holy man with a white beard and white hair, in a long black coat.” The stranger announces himself as Dr. Vladimir Dragan, a healer and sex therapist from Montenegro, who plans to set up a practice in the town. We size up Dr. Vlad through his encounters with a gallery of the town’s inhabitants: Dara, the young man behind the bar in the pub; Fifi, who lets rooms; young Father Damien in his brown sandals and cassock; the adventurous Sister Bonaventure; the busy people up at the hotel; and the beautiful, sad Fidelma McBride, “her black hair, her porcelain skin, the long neck and the Gioconda smile.”
The surreal setup allows O’Brien to unfold a series of witty and well-observed set pieces: an encounter between the doctor leading a mushroom gathering expedition and an officious local guard; a book club meeting which descends into chaos; the community coach trip to the doctor’s poetry reading at the foot of Ben Bulben, “in homage to Yeats.” In one brilliantly done scene, Sister Bonaventure decides to “sacrifice” herself as Vlad’s first guinea pig. “She had no fear of him and his Latin charm […] She lay on her back, peeping through the slits of her almost closed eyes, for fear of any hanky panky.” She submits to the weight of his hands on her chest, the holy chants, the warm stones placed on her stomach, and the freezing marble on her eyelids. She immediately tells it all to the group of women waiting for the lowdown in the coffee shop, confessing to everything except for the feeling of euphoria. Part of the target here is contemporary Irish society’s propensity for buying into almost anything. The nun’s role in the community has shrunk to that of a sort of social worker, while the otherwise conservative inhabitants of the town are happy to shell out on the most outlandish forms of spiritualism. The financial viability of the mystic masseur depends not on the mostly foreign new age hippies who crowd the small towns of the west of Ireland, and whose lifestyle depends not on buying but on selling shamanistic practices. It depends instead on the postmistress, the boutique owner, the retired nurse: middle-class, small-town women who may have missed out on psychoanalysis and LSD, but are right up to date with today’s therapeutic possibilities. What is startling about O’Brien’s portrait of all this feminine yearning and dissatisfaction is the way she manages to convey the sense that the spiritualism to which they turn is both entirely bogus and completely necessary.
For the first third of the book the reader grows increasingly anxious. We know that Dr. Vlad’s healing is not only bogus, but evil. He is the Bosnian war criminal Radovan Karadžić on the run, thinly disguised in the novel, but apparently so well-disguised in real life that he was able to evade capture by trading openly in Belgrade, Serbia, and Vienna, Austria, as Dr. Dragan David Dabić, peddler of alternative medicine and intense pseudoromantic lyric poetry. O’Brien’s audacious counter-history of Karadžić dissolves any comfortable boundary between the nice people of Sligo and the nasty history of Serbia — at one point, a group of Serbian thugs turn up and punish Fidelma, in almost unwritably violent fashion, for her affair with Dragan. Contemporary Ireland is implicated in the fratricidal violence of Eastern Europe; later in the novel it is implicated in the effects of the war on terror. Fidelma seeks refuge in London, where she lives on the margins with desperate refugees from other wars, from domestic slavery, and sexual and physical abuse, for whom London’s anonymous twilight economy is a last hope. Fidelma’s precarious status as both victim and perpetrator (because she has taken Dragan as her lover) allows O’Brien to explore questions of responsibility and collusion, and the extent to which comfortable living in the West depends on discomfort, murder, and torture elsewhere. The book is full of harrowing testimonies, from the displaced in London, and from the Bosnian victims of Dragan/Karadžić who Fidelma encounters when she travels to The Hague, Netherlands, to witness his trial. Through Fidelma, O’Brien asks us not to look away from the kind of atrocities, which are rarely addressed in contemporary Irish fiction, or indeed in much contemporary Irish political discourse either. She also asks us to consider the ways in which we collude in them.
The landscape of the novel is ringingly contemporary. Despite the unlikely premise — war criminal holed up in Irish village — we know we are reading about now, from the Irish castle-turned-carpeted hotel, to the pendulum-swinging spiritualist, to the teams of migrants cleaning city offices at night, to the women refugee’s refuge. But there is something about the characters themselves, and their relationships, which feels dated. The marriage between Fidelma and her husband could be lifted from a novel written 50 years ago, or more. He is 20 years older than she is; she marries him before encountering the world outside the village. Her parents, who were “very poor,” were too shy to go to the wedding in Dublin to a man who worked in a bank. Fidelma, the archetypal O’Brien heroine, is driven by roots deep in sexuality, and also, in her case, the longing for a child. O’Brien appears to believe that interiority is timeless, that the emotional inner world, the sensations of consciousness, remain the same even while the world changes around them. But the difficulty is that even if we accept that such desires may be primordial (which is debatable), the language in which desire is expressed, and arguably in which it is felt, is surely not.
This matters because a good portion of the novel is given over to monologue. O’Brien likes to set up scenes in which people explain themselves to an audience: the members of the Cloonoila book club discourse on the nature of love following a reading of book four of The Aeneid; the migrants who work in the kitchens of the castle each tell a tale in turn — unfortunately, mostly in present tense foreigners’ speak (“Then war happen. My family they lose everything,” “Place very lonely. Only cows and shed where I sleep”); the displaced who meet in the refugee center in London recount their experiences of violation as a form of expiation. But despite the different accents in which these stories are spoken, they remain curiously flat and undifferentiated. Indeed, they are curiously lacking in an imagined interior life. The language with which she describes personal memories and hopes comes across as clichéd and secondhand, and contrasts with the direct, unfussy, and economical way in which she describes things, which can be seen. Chanterelle mushrooms crumble “like soft biscuits”; a robin has “suede-brown wings.” Fidelma, in despair in her kitchen, is accused for her wayward desire by the ordinary objects of her own life, “where everything was judging her, the heave from the refrigerator, the idiotic magnets, china elves in a bowl and the unwashed eggbeater at the side of the sink.” O’Brien’s gift lies not in passages of heightened emotion, or lush prose, but in the perfectly observed details of everyday life.