Given the literary scandal that more or less led Edna O’Brien to flee Ireland following the publication of her Country Girls trilogy in the 1960’s, it would have been understandable if she had spent the rest of her life bashing Ireland and writing books about noble outsiders persecuted by the forces of authority.
But as with her idol James Joyce (about whom she wrote a short yet revealing biography in 1999), exile seemed only to strengthen O’Brien’s passion for Ireland and the Irish character. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that when future historians wrestle with the history of 20th-century Ireland and how individuals charted the choppy waters of cultural change, they will ignore O’Brien’s novels only at their own peril.
All that said, it is surely intriguing that one female character in O’Brien’s latest novel is a writer whose books have scandalized Ireland. Has O’Brien chosen to fictionalize her literary plight?
Not quite. O’Brien’s latest offering, entitled The Light of Evening, explores themes by now quite familiar to her fans, like family, land and the power of the past. Any autobiographical elements in the book are revealed not by O’Brien’s depiction of an uncompromising authoress but by her sparse dedication of the book, which reads: For my mother and motherland. The mother-daughter relationship is by far the book’s most dominant theme. The Light of Evening opens with the sickly and aged Dilly gazing at a demon of a crow all by herself, neither chick nor child. Reference is made later to bleating yearling calves whose mother has sauntered out of their view.
O’Brien fully exploits this mother-nature imagery, while also revealing a bit of Dilly’s tortured soul, when she later writes: Putting the memories to sleep, like putting an animal down.
Dilly is haunted by her own past, as well as more recent events, including the killing of one son by the British, the tameing of another by a greedy wife and, most important, the flight from Ireland of her daughter Eleanora, much to Dilly’s chagrin.
In The Light of Evening the past and present weave themselves together, while letters and diary entries break up the narrative action.
As a young girl in the 1920’s, Dilly left Ireland and lived in Brooklyn for a number of years. O’Brien’s scenes of young Dilly falling in love at Coney Island and working for a lace curtain Irish family during Christmas dinner are exquisitely detailed.
In the present, however, Dilly’s health is failing as she attempts to fend off the overtures of her son and his wife, who believe they should be the sole heirs of Dilly’s beloved home.
Eleanora, meanwhile, has committed sins beyond those of her controversial writings. Initially willing to be a dutiful wife and mother, she falls under the spell of books, going so far as to write secret letters to authors (including F. Scott Fitzgerald). A small advertisement in the back pages of a magazine seeks readers for manuscripts, and her assessments are so finely crafted that an editor praises her work. He soon becomes Eleanora’s lover.
Fierce and unapologetic about her writing as well as her personal life, Eleanora has been quoted as saying all writers are queer and exempt from the normal mores. (In her biography of Joyce, O’Brien went further and said great writers generally have no choice but to act like monsters.) In short, Eleanora has had an awakening and will not be going the way of Kate Chopin’s tragic Edna Pontellier.
It is no easy task to write a novel about the bravery and nobility of novel-writing. O’Brien, however, is able to pull this off because she so convincingly sketches the deeper and more profound conflicts that are slowly causing Eleanora’s marriage to disintegrate. O’Brien’s prose can be murky at times (at least for this reader), but she can also write a sentence as beautiful yet unrelenting as the likes of Alice Munro, and yes, even Joyce. Their hearts contracting day by day, [Eleanora and her husband] visited little malices on one another in lieu of their missed happiness.
The turning point of The Light of Evening comes when all of the novel’s key issuesDilly’s illness, her greedy son, her distant daughter, her passionate love for the land she calls homecollide. Dilly discovers a personal journal that Eleanora left behind during an all-too-brief and awkward visit.
The result is equally terrifying and subdued. While waging her own intense war, Eleanora must face the fact that she may have allowed her mother to become collateral damage.
In this age of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, it might be tempting to believe Edna O’Brien’s books are obsessed with depressing, bygone and provincial Irish troubles. Then again, you might say the same about America and Faulkner, whom O’Brien quotes in The Light of Evening: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.