Unlike most recent reviews of Edna O’Brien’s new collection Saints and Sinners, the following discussion does not mention how old she is, how prolific she is, or what a scandal she caused in her younger days.
Although best known for her Country Girls Trilogy and other novels, Edna O'Brien is the author of six previous short story collections: The Love Object (1968), A Scandalous Woman (1974), Mrs. Reinhardt and Other Stories (1978), Returning (1982), A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories (1985), and Lantern Slides, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction in 1990. Her most recent collection, Saints and Sinners, is shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize, to be awarded in Cork on September 18.
An early story by O'Brien, "Irish Revel," from her first collection The Love Object (1968), and "Lantern Slides," from the book of the same name published in 1990, both of which are anthology favorites, are good examples of her typical themes and her stylistic range.
"Irish Revel" centers on Mary, a seventeen-year-old village girl who has been invited to her first party in town. However, when she arrives in her best clothes, she discovers she has actually been invited to be a serving maid. Her head filled with romantic fantasies about sophisticated city, she is surprised that so many people there are coarse and vulgar. When the men get drunk and start quarrels and one clumsily makes advances to her, Mary loses all illusions about town life. Slipping out of the hotel before dawn, she goes home, but she has not given up her romantic hope for a handsome young man. The story ends with lines that echo the famous lyrical ending of Joyce's "The Dead": "Frost was general all over Ireland...frost on the stony fields, and on all the slime and ugliness of the world."
"Lantern Slides” is also a tribute to "The Dead," for it recounts a contemporary Dublin party in which a number of characters tell their own stories of love and disappointment. Just as in Joyce's story, the focus here is on the ghostly nature of the past in which all have experienced the loss of romantic fantasies. However, the power of desire has such a hold on the characters that chivalric romance seems an attainable, yet not quite reachable, grail-like goal. When the estranged husband of one of the women arrives, everyone hopes it is the wandering Odysseus returned home in search of his Penelope. "You could feel the longing in the room, you could touch it--a hundred lantern slides ran through their minds...It was like a spell...It was as if life were just beginning."
The reviewers’ favorite story in O’Brien’s new collection, Saints and Sinners, is “Shovel Kings,” for it is the longest (and thus, according to reviewers, the most novelistic) and gives them an opportunity to generalize about the historical/social issues of all those Irish men who had to leave Ireland to do manual labor in England. The story is told by a narrator who encounters the central character, a man named Rafferty, who came with his father to England to work when he was only fifteen. Later, when his father leaves, the boy makes it on his own with other Irish men like himself. In fact, Rafferty comes to be a representative of all those Irish men who emigrated to England to find work; the story ends with a “litany” of all the so-called Irish “shovel kings” who have now have gone to dust. It is an affecting story about a man “on whom a permanent frost had settled,” an exiled man who does not belong in England but no longer belongs in Ireland either, a man whose heart has been “immeasurably broken.”
My own favorites are three shorter stories that echo some of O’Brien’s earlier work, focusing on women—both young and older—who dare to dream or else have had their dreams dashed: “Sinners,” “Green Georgette,” and “Send My Roots Rain.” Such stories as “My Two Mothers” and “Old Wounds,” focusing on mother/daughter tension and family conflicts, are also reminiscent of O’Brien at her stylistic and culturally sensitive best. I do not care so much, however, for “Black Flower” (about an IRA man released from prison), “Plunder” (a fable about cultural clash and rape), or “Manhattan Medley” (a sort of stream of consciousness mental letter recounting a New York affair).
Although there is some reference to cultural change in Ireland in the three stories I like best, the references are only background—not the focus of the stories. In “Send my Roots Rain” (the line is from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins), an aging librarian known in the small town as the “Spinster,” takes the bus to Dublin for a rendezvous with a famous Irish poet. The poet is not identified, but may be modeled after Seamus Heaney (He is called “our Laureate” by the porter in the hotel), or Brendan Kennelly, who taught at Trinity and is a popular Dublin poet, or he may be a composite of both. He is certainly not, as one reviewer says, “unmistakably Patrick Kavanagh,” for Kavanagh died in 1967, and this story takes place in the twenty-first century.
Although the name of hotel where the arranged rendezvous is to take place is not mentioned, it is obviously the Shelbourne, which the porter calls “the most distinguished address in Dublin.” The porter says he was been working in the hotel for thirty-three odd years, “barring the two years when the establishment was closed for the massive revamp,” which we know took place between 2005 and 2007. None of this really matters; I just wanted my readers to know that regardless of my objections to focusing unduly on information and background in short stories, I am not unaware of such things. And on a personal note, one of my happiest days in Dublin took place three years ago when I shepherded a group of California students to Dublin to study Joyce’s Dubliners and Ulysses, I took my daughter (who was part of the class) to afternoon tea in the Shelbourne.
Many reviewers are fond of pointing out O’Brien’s negative attitude toward the so-called “Celtic Tiger” image of Ireland and the damage that has been done to the Irish economy by the economic errors of that period; and indeed, in “Send My Roots Rain,” the disruptions which that economic rise and fall have wrought in Ireland are mentioned as the librarian Miss Gilhooley thinks about what she and the poet will talk about when he arrives: “the changes that had occurred in their country, changes that were not for the better, bulldozers everywhere and the craze for money. Money, money, money. The rich going to lunch in their helicopters chopping the air and shredding the white mist….” But the story is not about social change; it is about the mystery of poetry, the inexplicable nature of love, and the “mysterious certitude of marriage,” which Miss Gilhooley has never managed to reach—all of which she thinks about while waiting for the poet to arrive. Having been in love many times, but always failing to make it to marriage, she has “turned to poets as she would to God.” Hopkins is her favorite, and she often repeats the line, “O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.”
She remembers her loves and waits for the poet. But of course he never arrives. The porter makes excuses for him, saying that the poet often comes to the hotel bar, that he would have every intention of meeting her, getting dressed and probably came as close as the corner by the statue of Wolfe Tone, but then “balking it.” When she asks why the poet would baulk it, the porter says, “shyness, the shyest man I ever came across. I’ll bet you he’s walking the street now, or maybe on a bench by the canal, reproaching himself for himself for his blasted boorishness…his defection.” The porter shows her to the door and watches her go down the street. “She held herself well, but there was a hurt look to her back.”
On the bus ride home, she presses her face to the window and says the name of the man she had so loved, “a name that had not passed her lips in almost twenty years, and all of a sudden she was crying.” She thinks of the poet, a lonely, clumsy man walking the streets of Dublin, staring into the greenish water of the canal. “She knew then, and with a cold conviction, the love, the desolation, that goes into the making of a poem.” It’s a nice, tight little story that reaffirms Frank O’Connor’s famous notion of how loneliness is a characteristic of the short story.
“The Sinners” also focuses on an aging woman, this time a widow named Delia who runs a B&B. In her loneliness, she has “lost that most heartfelt rapport that she once had with God.” When a handsome English couple rent a room with their adolescent daughter, she envies them their youth and family closeness. However, in the evening, she hears the daughter’s going to her parents’ room on tiptoe. She listens and “her whole body stiffens in revulsion… something appalling was transpiring in there, whispers and tittering and giggles… she pictured them, their hands, their mouths, their limbs, all seeking one another out.” She imagines in vivid detail the naked girl, the man fondling both her and his wife, “and before long she knew that it would reach the vileness of an orgy.” She thinks that the girl could not be a daughter, that they have picked up a young girl, perhaps a hitchhiker or someone they solicited in an advertisement in their local paper, the wife agreeing to it all as being the surest way she could hold on to a husband.
Taking a sleeping pill, she has “a glut of dreams.” In one she is with a group of women about to be photographed by two men. They are ordered to undress, but she refuses. In another she is alone in a church in which the priest sings lustily as if in a beer garden, and a little altar boy drinks wine from the chalice. At breakfast “she took her revenge.” She tells the guests that she is only charging them for one room since only one room was fully occupied. Realizing that she has heard them, they insist on paying for two rooms, but she throws the money back at them. When the car drives away, she cries “from the pit of her being.” She thinks it was not because of them and the “unsavourines of the night,” but rather it has to do with herself. “Her heart had walled up a long time ago, she had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give-and-take that is life. She had even forgotten her own sins.” The “little pleasures” have nothing to do with what the family do in the woman’s rented bedroom, but what she overhears reminds her of the secret lives of others and the loneliness of her arid existence.
“Green Georgette” is told from the point of view of a young girl who has been invited with her mother to a Sunday evening tea with the Coughlans, an upper-class family new to the town. The girl is very aware of the social differences between her family when she sees a piano being moved into their home, but it is her romantic, poetic side that is emphasized in the story, not social difference; when the piano is put down, it emits “a little sound of its own, a ghostly broken tune.”
Drew Coughlan, the woman of the house, is “the cynosure of all…like a queen.” All the women in the town are intrigued by her finery, her proud carriage, and her glacial smile. However, as seems fitting for her poetic perception, in church, the girl turns around to look at the woman, to take note of her little habits, and how often she swallows. “She blinks with such languor.”
The title comes from the crepe-like fabric dress that Mrs. Coughlan wears on the day of the visit. As the mother and the woman talk, the girl’s response is typically romantic and poetic: “It was like a room in a story, what with the fire, the fire screen, the fenders and the fire irons gleaming, and the picture above the black marble mantelpiece of a knight on horseback breaching a storm.” The conversation between the two women primarily suggests two secrets: that the mother wishes to ingratiate herself with Ms. Coughlan, and that Ms. Coughlan’s relationship with her husband is bland and unexciting.
The tea is disrupted suddenly when Ms. Coughlan asks her sister, who lives with them, to look at her rash and check her lips for swelling. Although the mother does not think there is any thing wrong, she tries to be accommodating by suggesting they call the doctor. But, Ms. Coughlan insists that they drive to the doctor’s office instead, which makes the mother think there was “something fishy, decidedly fishy” about it all, especially since she knows the doctor has a reputation as something of a lady’s man who has kissed the nurses on the hospital grounds.
The girl’s romantic imagination once again takes over, as she imagines Mrs. Coughlan lying on the doctor’s couch, and “how both, as in a drama, had a sudden urge to kiss each other, but did not dare to.” When Mrs. Coughlan and her sister return, the girl thinks she looks different, “as if something thrilling had happened to her.” As the mother and daughter leave, Drew says she is glad they came, “but it was like telling us we were dull and lusterless...” Walking home, the mother is scornful about the “grand Mrs. Coughlan,” but the girl has an “insatiable longing for tinned peaches.” She concludes by saying that mixed with her longing is a mounting rage. “Our lives seemed so drab, so uneventful. I prayed for drastic thing to occur—for the bullocks to rise up and mutiny, then gore one another, for my father to die in his sleep, for our school to catch fire, and for Mr. Coughlan to take a pistol and shoot his wife, before shooting himself.” Like the woman in “Sinning,” the young girl laments the lack of romantic engagement in her life—a sense of loss that in Edna O’Brien’s stories often manifests itself in brute and perverse imagining.
Edna O’Brien’s stories are not terribly complex, but they perceptively investigate the secret desires of their characters and the mysteries that lie behind the seemingly controlled surfaces of life. They are not as challenging as the stories of her Canadian colleague Alice Munro (who has always been a great O’Brien admirer), but they are delicately written and sensitively explored.
I’ll end on a final personal note. I have met Edna O’Brien briefly twice—once when I was in Dublin and attended a reading she gave at Trinity College; she was kind enough to have a brief chat with me and sign a copy of her most recent novel that I had just purchased for my wife. Three years ago, I was in Cork for an International Short Story Conference, at which she was a featured reader. I was very sick at the time, coughing so much that I had to leave the auditorium and listen to her finish the story from the public address system in the hallway. As one of the featured speakers, I was invited to sit at Ms. O’Brien’s table for the banquet dinner that night, but because I was coughing so much, I knew I would be a disruption and had to decline. Instead I went back to my hotel, the Imperial, where Michael Collins spent his last night, and spent my night coughing-- miserable that I had missed the opportunity for what I imagined would have been a delightful evening, drinking wine and making sophisticated chat with the grand Edna O’Brien. For a romantic like me, it was a crushing blow.
I send my very best wishes to Ms. O’Brien in her competition for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. In a few days, I will discuss the third book on the shortlist: Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option.”