When Irish eyes aren’t smiling

(Anne Latini/ Globe Staff)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2011

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Edna O’Brien is an Irish writer who has long lived outside Ireland. Yet from her scandalous first novel (“The Country Girls,’’ published in 1960, was banned in Ireland because of its sexual content), O’Brien has kept the island keenly in her sights. “Flat, watery land,’’ one story in her new collection begins, “. . .and rivers a reddish brown from the iron in the soil.’’ We expect such plainness from John McGahern or William Trevor, not perhaps from O’Brien, an artist prone to rhapsody. But O’Brien has always been an accurate writer and in “Saints and Sinners’’ her accuracy of vision and emotion is keener than ever.

“Shovel Kings,’’ the finest story here, is a portrait of exile. Rafferty, now elderly, left rural Ireland when he was 15 to work as a laborer in England. He was one of millions who did so only to live and die in poverty. Now, in chance encounters over several months, Rafferty tells his story to an observant stranger. A working life emerges in detailed recollections: of clay and shovels, pain and drink, kindness and betrayal. Rafferty’s father womanizes in London before returning to brutalize Rafferty’s long-suffering mother. “If I went home I would have had to kill him,’’ Rafferty calmly explains, but O’Brien, in a delicate twist, does send Rafferty home. Like Oisin, the hero of Celtic myth, he returns to an altered Ireland. But Rafferty is no hero, just an emigrant from a forgotten generation. “He had cut me out,’’ the narrator concludes, “the way he had cut his mother out and those few who were dear to him, not from a hardness of heart, but from a heart that was immeasurably broken.’’

Each story here lays bare a heart, broken or wounded. Curly, the simple-minded protagonist of “Inner Cowboy,’’ is a casualty not of emigration but of a modern, prosperous Ireland. He lives with his grandmother in a town dominated by McSorley, a building tycoon. When Curly hides an illicit package for a friend and when McSorley’s business is jeopardized, the gears of tragedy engage with terrible smoothness. By contrast, “Manhattan Medley’’ a chronicle of a passionate affair, and “Plunder,’’ a monologue of wartime invasion and rape, seem graceless in their intensity, and O’Brien strikes a similarly melodramatic note in “Black Flower,’’ an elegy for an Irish Republican Army prisoner who is freed only to be gunned down.

Big subjects have always unleashed O’Brien’s operatic tendencies but this collection favors her more restrained work. “Sinners,’’ for example, takes us inside the mind of a widow who welcomes paying guests to maintain her farmhouse. “She had lost that most heartfelt rapport that she once had with God,’’ O’Brien writes. “So at night, awake, she would go around the house in her mind and think of improvements . . . in the vacant room where the apples were stored, the wallpaper had been hung upside down and had survived the years without any visitors noticing that the acorns and hummingbirds were the wrong way around.’’ When Delia hears (or imagines) a visiting couple and a teenage daughter cavorting sexually, she is drawn into darker personal memories. Morning brings humiliation. Crying, she sinks onto grass that is “soft and silken and not too dry, nourished from rain and spells of sunshine.’’ In a more sophisticated soliloquy, the middle-class wife in “Madame Cassandra’’ contemplates her husband’s infidelities.

O’Brien’s writing is surest when describing the weak; the librarian in “Send My Roots Rain’’ is a familiar yet affecting example. Broken long ago by love, Miss Gilhooley waits in the lounge of a Dublin hotel to meet a legendary poet. With lyrical economy, O’Brien evokes the anxious vigil and the journey “home to the loamy land and the brown-black lakes fed from bog water.’’ Home is at the core of the clearly autobiographical “My Two Mothers’’ and the more formal “Old Wounds,’’ which charts one family’s loyalties and rows “over greyhounds, over horses, over some rotten bag of seed potatoes — and always with money at the root of it.’’ Money and a grave, in this case. “Why,’’ the narrator wonders, “did I want to be buried there? . . . It was not love and it was not hate but something for which there is no name.’’ O’Brien captures it.

Anna Mundow is a freelance journalist living in central Massachusetts. She can be reached at

Back Bay, 272pp., paperback, $13.99