Michelle Woods Reviews Edna O’Brien’s Saints and Sinners

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Why It’s New York: Edna O’Brien appeared this week as part of the Selected Shorts series at Symphony Space as part of New York Book Week. Literary New Yorker Colum McCann  read, along with Cynthia Nixon and Eilin O’Dea.  Edna O’Brien will also read at McNally Jackson on Monday (Memorial Day) with Gabriel Byrne!
Why It’s Irish: since her debut 50 years ago with The Country Girls, O’Brien has been one of the leading Irish writers.
Edna O’Brien’s Saints and Sinners is Marvelous
Saints and Sinners

Zest, vitality and rage.

The three nouns that describe, for Edna O’Brien, the heart of Samuel Beckett’s short fiction. But they could as well be descriptors of O’Brien’s marvelous new collection of short stories, Saints and Sinners.
I’ve always found O’Brien’s work and life fascinating, sometimes for the wrong reasons but often for the right.

It’s fifty years – a half century! – since she published her first novel, The Country Girls, a tour de force, dismissed for many years by the critical establishment as women’s fiction (pre-Chick Lit) and denounced as evil and burnt by her parish priest. Her mother, when she got a copy of the novel, blacked out unacceptable phrases and sent it back to O’Brien with no other comment. It was banned in Ireland.


“One could not but rage,” O’Brien said recently in an interview speaking of Ireland, “but there’s also the sadness.”  Ireland loves her now.

O’Brien moved to England in the late 1950s with her then husband, Ernest Gebler – himself a successful novelist and an unerring misanthrope – and she never went back to Ireland. Except in her fiction that returned again and again to her childhood and to her unsuccessful marriage (O’Brien never remarried after her divorce in 1964 though has had some high profile lovers). In recent years, I’ve found some of her fiction heavy in its own weight of recurring themes and obsessions. Though her prose always contains some lyrical gorgeousness, the zest and vitality were drowned out by the rage.
Her new collection begins with a story, “Shovel Kings”, about Irish immigrant laborers in London – a group forgotten in the whoosh of the Celtic Tiger. It reminded me of a startling photo-essay, I think in Granta a few years ago, that documented some of these men, many homeless or down on their luck, but all otherwise photoshopped out of the Celtic Tiger experience. None of them had gone back. “Shovel Kings” tells the story of Rafferty. He arrives in Camden Town, London, and is set to work digging a trench for the new electric lines:

At his first sight of it, it was hard for him, as he said, not to imagine those men, young though they were, destined for all eternity to be kept digging some never-ending grave.
In a sense it’s a tragic story, but there’s such an undercurrent of beauty; O’Brien said she wanted to convey the “depth of unillustrious lives”, as an “elegy or evocation” of them. She said she was influenced by her hero, James Joyce, on his inspiration for his sublime short story, “The Dead”, that he wanted to write a story for those excluded from life’s feast. There is a moving feast in this story, when Rafferty is invited by friends to their pub that they close down for Christmas Day, and the modest dinner and their ability to “pull your own pint” when they wanted: “This was how you imagine a home could be’ Rafferty said”.
Rafferty’s story is told to the narrator, who is never identified and who meets him in a pub before her sessions with a “doctor”; we never find out anything more than that about the narrator. I was absorbed in Rafferty’s story but after reading it, the mysteriousness and opaqueness of the narrator stuck with me: who is she? Why does she need these sessions with the shrink? It’s a beautiful device, and I think influenced by the wonderful German writer, WG Sebald and his novel, Austerlitz.

O’Brien returns to some of her characters from her very first novels – Mr. Gentleman, the aged lover of the teenage Cait in The Country Girls features here. This time, it is his wife, Mildred, telling her story, waiting outside a fortune-teller’s called Madame Cassandra. With all its Greek references – she keeps coming back to Dido – Mildred tells the story of their marriage, filled as it is with secrets and his infidelities. In “Two Mothers”, she returns to another fictionalized account of her mother, but she has turned into a mythopoetic figure, a halfling between the dour life in reality and the life of the Gods. O’Brien has returned again and again in her fiction to her family and her disastrous marriage – but there is a lightness here, a sense of forgiveness.

The lyricism of the writing is beautiful and true. In “Manhattan Medley” she tells the story of an affair with a married architect in Manhattan – they court under a skyscraper, a “tall, brown building that seemed to tilt like a lake above us”. When news of their affair leaks out, a woman judges her with “eyes [that] glittered like paste jewelry”.  The narrator thinks:

Only fools think that men and women love differently.  Fools and pedagogues. I tell you the love of men for women is just as heartbreaking, just as muddled, just as bewildering, and in the end just as unfinished.

The aching sound of that last sentence, the anaphoric use of “just as”, repeated to stretch out the feeling, only to end with “unfinished” gives a sense of how deeply the form speaks to the content.

Two characters – the mother in “Two Mothers” and the narrator’s cousin in the final story, “Old Wounds”, leave never-written or unfinished letters. The demons that have haunted O’Brien – Ireland’s lack of forgiveness (“I am haunted” O’Brien said in an interview) – are presented here with a modicum of peace. Coming to terms with the “unfinished”, the collection ends with a gorgeous paragraph:

I could still see the island, shrouded in a veil of thin gray rain. Why, I asked myself, did I want to be buried there? Why, given the different and gnawing perplexities? 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.

Who needs exorcism when the ghosts are finally sitting at the feast.

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Hear Michelle discuss the book on the May 24 podcast!
And check back to hear Edna O’Brien on the podcast itself!

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