Now 80, the peerless Irish-born writer Edna O’Brien is still producing exquisite fiction, as evidenced in her new collection of stories, Saints and Sinners. O’Brien has long plumbed the emotional groundwater of family resentments, the disaffection of a life in exile, and the exposed nerve of sexual and romantic longing. Many of these new stories return to these familiar themes, but there is now the inevitable patina of age—of wisdom gained, or at least nostalgia—that well suits O’Brien’s lyrical, ruminative narrative gifts.
Versions of O’Brien’s own “escape” from the narrow confines of rural Irish childhood (she has lived mostly in London since she was 23) have fueled her novels and stories, as has the inability to shed completely the ties to the motherland. Some of the stronger stories here revisit these verities. “Shovel Kings” chronicles the life of an aging Irish day laborer, an economic refugee in London who returns to Ireland only to discover he is no longer at home in either world. A failed reconciliation between a woman who left home and a cousin who stayed behind prompts the painful realization that, “It was not love and it was not hate but something for which there is no name, because to name it would be to deprive it of its truth.”
Mothers and daughters—territory O’Brien surveyed in her last novel, The Light of Evening—are at the center of “My Two Mothers” and “Green Georgette,” while variations on love’s relentless, if often bitter, pull play out in an adulterous marriage in “Madame Cassandra,” a transatlantic affair in “Manhattan Medley,” and a spinster’s enduring hope in the moving, melancholy “Send My Roots Rain.” In “Sinners,” the real or imagined peccadilloes of a traveling trio trigger an overwrought, inadvertently comic reprisal from the repressed owner of a bed-and-breakfast.
The Irish “Troubles,” now largely a relic of the past, rear up in the violent denouement of “Black Flower,” while the violence of a newer, greedier Ireland lead to a misguided young man’s repercussive death in “Inner Cowboy.” And in “Plunder,” the one story that journeys afield from O’Brien’s accustomed terrain, a girl in an unnamed, war-torn country is repeatedly defiled, then left for dead, by a marauding gang of hooligans.
With a singular combination of sumptuous prose and stark brutality (both emotional and physical) that is all her own, Edna O’Brien continues to delineate the contradictions and perplexities of the human experience.