Over the past five decades, virtuoso fiction writer Edna O'Brien has taken the blunted, baleful inner lives of women as her personal literary territory. In style and temperament, she is the Irish stepdaughter of Virginia Woolf, about whom she once wrote a play. Less elliptical than Woolf's, though, O'Brien's narratives are grounded by a particular Irishness, by the way the story seeps through the circuitous surface blather that distracts us from the deeper pain of our lives.
Now 75, this writer once considered scandalous (at least in her native land) for her frank portrayals of female sexuality and her candid appraisals of the small-mindedness of rural Ireland has written a contemplative novel, rich in hindsight and regret. The Light of Evening is a story of a mother and daughter, circling each other with misunderstanding and distrust, failing to recognize their insuperable love until it is too late. Presented in a shifting array of narrative styles third and first person, letters, a journal the two women's intertwined stories unfurl slowly and out of chronological sequence, requiring the reader to piece together the sequestered truths.
It begins as the mother, Dilly, reluctantly leaves her farm to check into a Dublin clinic for an unremitting case of the shingles. From her hospital bed, Dilly longs for a visit from her daughter, Eleanora, a famous novelist who lives in London. Eleanora left home many years before, inciting the disapproval of the family by living with an older foreigner, whom she eventually married when she became pregnant with the first of her two sons (these details, like much in O'Brien's fiction, seem drawn from the writer's own life). That marriage soured, and Eleanora has had a series of affairs over the ensuing years, always seeking, rarely finding love. Dilly has had a seemingly more conventional marriage to Eleanora's father, but when she is given a strong sleeping medication in the hospital, it summons up memories of a brief chapter in her youth when she immigrated to the United States. While living in Brooklyn, she had a passionate, mysteriously short-lived love affair with the man she forever after would consider the love of her life.
Over the years, Eleanora assiduously works to distance herself from her mother and her motherland. Even as Dilly may be dying, her daughter has to force herself to make an obligatory appearance. It is a painful reunion, Eleanora counting the minutes until she can return to the arms of a new lover she has met at a literary conference in Denmark. In her haste she leaves behind a highly personal journal that documents the madness she has long struggled to overcome in terms of her ties to her mother. Dilly, of course, reads the journal, but her reactions, which Eleanora will never know, are not necessarily what one might expect. Indeed, she persists in her determination to change her will to ensure that Eleanora gets a part of the family property, Rusheen. It is as if Dilly believes the land, and all the past happiness and transgressions that commingle in its soil, is the one sure thing she can leave the daughter she loves beyond words. O'Brien has always been a writer of uncompromising perceptiveness, and again and again in the novel, she cuts to the quick with rapier insight cloaked in poetry. Yet there is nothing conclusive about The Light of Evening. O'Brien doesn't deign to wrap things up in a neat and happy package at the end. Her gorgeous prose never masks the essential difficult truth she puts forth that no life is anything less than complicated, messy, or in some way unfulfilled. This redolent book is about a mother and daughter, but its lessons are equally germane to fathers or sons or siblings to anyone who has navigated the treacherous waters of family. That is to say, to anyone. Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.