It is 40 years now since O’Brien’s early novels of sexual awakening, known as The Country Girls trilogy, were published. Like her hero James Joyce, O’Brien’s blunt sexuality earned admirers abroad but scandal and censorship at home in Ireland.
It was very hurtful, because I thought and still maintain that The Country Girls (and The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss, which followed) were all love songs to Ireland, O’Brien told me.
Over a prodigious career that has now produced over 20 books, O’Brien became a hero of sorts to novelists with a libidinal bent, such as Philip Roth, Mary Gordon and John Updike. But with explicit sexuality now the stuff of television and movies (not to mention serious fiction), O’Brien has chosen to explore broader social topics: politics, abortion, murder. O’Brien, however, has not left Ireland.
In 2000 she published Wild Decembers, a lush, tragic tale set in western Ireland in the 1970’s, which chronicles the dangerous passions of land ownership. It was the third and final entry in a trilogy on contemporary Irish life that O’Brien conceived a decade earlier. House of Splendid Isolation (1994) explored the I.R.A. and Irish nationalism, while Down by the River (1997) was a fictional rendering of the infamous X abortion case.
O’Brien’s latest novel, In the Forest, continues this trend. It is based on a notorious murder spree in County Clare in 1994, during which a local youth who had spent time in prison killed a mother, her son and a priest.
In the Forest immediately reveals to the reader that there is a dead woman in an isolated patch of woods, and close attention should be paid to O’Brien’s lush, Gothic descriptions. Though the book has been widely reviewed, little has been said about its use of the Book of Genesis. In the Forest, quite clearly, is O’Brien’s Garden of Eden after the fall, a paradise lost.
Following the murders that propel In the Forest, O’Brien writes: They were the same woods, that filtered green, the constant leafy murmur, and yet not the same, no longer the harmless place it once was, marked now as a human can be marked by its violation....
Along with a victim, O’Brien quickly introduces the killer, fittingly named O’Kane (Cain). In the Forest, then, is no mere murder mystery. O’Brien is interested in exploring the causes and effects of this bloody episode, which, as one character describes them, had opened wounds that were too deep, too shocking, too hurtful; it had been a human hemorrhaging and the country was depleted from it.
O’Brien’s twist is that this distant, murderous brother of Abel is uniquely Irish. But while her exploration of O’Kane’s reign of terror is deft, it is also uneven. O’Brien’s dialogue can be fierce and disturbing. Her brief exploration of O’Kane’s youth, however, seems as familiar as it is informative, with its dead mother, distant father and abusive priests and schoolchildren. Then there is her prose, poetic for sure, but at times almost suffocatingly bleak. Appropriate, yes, but not always a pleasure to get through.
Still, O’Brien’s transition from O’Kane’s troubled youth to his post-prison return to Ireland is seamless. And it is immediately clear that O’Kane is bent on terrible violence, as he stalks a hippyish young mother and her son, a hunter tracking unwitting prey.
It is O’Brien’s rendering of the townspeople whom O’Kane terrorizes, however, that is particularly interesting. They know O’Kane’s history; they rightly fear him; yet they try to engage him, seemingly (almost willfully) ignorant of his awful powers. Here, along with her grim sketch of O’Kane’s youth, O’Brien seems to be implicating much of Ireland in this tragedy. As one police officer puts it, Deep down we believe [O’Kane] has been sent by God, as punishment upon us. Later he is described as one of their own sons come out of their soil, their own flesh and blood, gone amok.
When the diary of O’Kane’s first victim is discovered, a local priest goes so far as to blame the victim: He felt he would be doing the right thing by burning it. Woman’s filth, Eve, taken from the rib of Adam, to wreak unchastity upon the world.
And yet, again, it is O’Brien’s unflinching exploration of the Irish character and soul that actually precludes her being dismissed as simply a bitter daughter of Ireland. For sure, this is tough love, but O’Brien’s intricacy and passion seem to be a kind of love nonetheless. Some sections of In the Forest do not grip the reader, especially since we know the gruesome path down which O’Kane is leading us and his victims.
But perhaps what O’Brien best conveysparticularly to American readers is how what might seem a minor crime spree in the grand scheme of things can nevertheless be cataclysmic. Writers like her remind us that even in the 21st century, ancient questions of good and evil, redemption and damnation remain vital, perplexing and ultimately unresolved in many corners of this planet.