A frail widow and a cruel killer held hostage by their tragic lives

June 19, 1994|By Anne Whitehouse

Private and public tragedies are intermingled in Edna O'Brien's bleak, powerful and lyrical new novel. Set in the western lake country of her native Ireland, "House of Splendid Isolation" -- Ms. O'Brien's 20th work of fiction -- tells the story of an elderly widow whose solitude is destroyed by an intruder who, by threat of force, takes refuge in her home. The intruder, McGreevy, is a fugitive. An IRA volunteer known as the Beast, he is wanted for murder.

Josie, the Bhean an Tighe (or "woman of the house") whom McGreevy holds hostage, is the frail survivor of a cruel marriage that brought her misery and taught her denial and forbearance. Now, as she endures five days of captivity in her own home, she alternates between despising her captor and trying to understand him.

The scenes between them are charged with an ambivalent intimacy. Josie believes briefly that she can redeem McGreevy from the violence he is wedded to, and then realizes that she cannot. He, too, has survived private tragedies, and the result, Josie reflects, is that "something [had been] wiped out in his nature, his human nature."

The novel's structure is based upon the techniques of film narrative; the beginning consists of a sequence of brief scenes featuring a number of different characters whose relationships with each other have yet to be revealed. The reader, piecing the information together, realizes that this is a story of the hunted and the hunter. Here is McGreevy on the run, using different aliases and disguises; here are the testimonies of citizens who have encountered him; here is Rory, the detective sergeant who is tracking him; and here is Josie being visited by a nurse as she convalesces from pneumonia.

With the appearance of Josie, the novel becomes her story. Ms. O'Brien is both an observant chronicler of soul-squeezing Irish .. provincial life in all its maliciousness, petty jealousies and ruinous feuds, and a vivid portraitist of inner consciousness. The history of Josie's marriage to her husband, James, is a long, drawn-out war of disappointment and frustration; their sexual life is a battle ground: "He mounts her without a word because she has gotten into the habit of saying no and stop and no. He has taken to holding her lips shut with one hand, clamping the way he might clamp an animal, and he has grown to like it; he likes the power he has over her . . ."

Josie's abortive love affair with a priest -- her awakening passion, hope, abandonment, defeat and retribution -- is evoked in a series of stunning scenes. The novel's single most violent episode is reserved not for the clash between McGreevy and his pursuers, but for the confrontation between Josie and her husband:

"With a savage alacrity [he] slammed the window down so that she was half in and half out, the wooden sash wedged into her flesh. A fierce flagellant lather of joy possessed him on account of the pain that he could feel issuing back from her, his energy prodigal as he beat her . . . for the pleasures he had not given her . . . Hot, burning, quivering blows, and then a dampness as if maybe she had started to bleed, and her eyes damp also, but the tears being driven back in."

Although Josie is defeated in this battle with her husband, she is the victor in the war between them. Yet, paradoxically, her triumph over him is also her greatest loss. She deprives him of a child, and that knowledge continues to haunt her life after her husband's death. It is this child's disembodied voice that opens and closes the novel.

McGreevy's war is also a war of attrition, with skirmishes, innocent victims and compromised victories and defeats. "Now there are two wars . . . one with the English and one with ourselves," Josie tells him. As we observe McGreevy through Josie's eyes, we share her feelings of outrage, her awakening sense of connection and hope, and her disillusion and alienation.

In mistaking coercion for complicity, the police who are tracking McGreevy trap Josie and innocent citizens like her in assumptions of guilt. In their botched operations, the police forfeit the sympathy of civilians. "Trust had gone out of the land and out of the people," Ms. O'Brien writes, "The old wars, the old atrocities had been replaced with dirtier and bitterer ones, and brother no longer flinched at the bloodshed of brother."

Josie's sacrifice is an ironic re-enactment of her husband's fate. Her warm embrace of McGreevy -- her attempt to take human comfort in him -- is misinterpreted as a lewd satisfaction by the police who have staked them out. There can be no innocent gestures, they seem to be saying.

Until authentic human comfort can be offered, accepted, and recognized for what it is, until enemies can learn to see themselves in each other, the war will never end. "That is the future knowledge," Ms. O'Brien writes in the visionary conclusion of this grim, poetic novel.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

Title: "House of Splendid Isolation"

Author: Edna O'Brien

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Length, price: 226 pages, $21

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