O'Brien's 'In the Forest' -- evil in Ireland

March 17, 2002|By Clare McHugh | By Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

In the Forest, by Edna O'Brien. Houghton Mifflin. 272 pages. $24.

Looking for a compelling murder mystery? Look elsewhere. While with her latest offering the renowned Irish author Edna O'Brien sets out to explain in fictional terms the brutal killings of three innocents in the west of Ireland in 1994 -- she's aiming for a kind of In Cold Blood with novelist's liberties taken -- the result is neither mysterious nor absorbing. One recoils in horror and disgust as the deranged protagonist bears down on his victims, and feels offended at being dragged into the murderer's head and given nothing but a detailed recitation of his sick fantasies once there.

O'Brien christens her killer Michen O'Kane, and introduces him as a troubled boy of 10 whose mother has died. Mich is sent to a juvenile detention center after committing a couple of petty crimes, and at the center, away from his sister and grandmother, the only people in the world who care for him, he is abused by the priests who run the place and by the other boys. He is briefly given a chance at a new life when a kindly couple offer to adopt him, but driven by his mad impulses he kills a pet rabbit and a litter of kittens and is sent back to reform school. Mich later goes to England, where he is imprisoned for thievery.

Meanwhile, the author focuses on Eily Ryan, a luminous single mother with all the feelings and opportunities that beautiful young women are afforded: the desire to make one's own way, the conflicting impulses for intimacy and independence, the constant attention of men. As soon as we meet Eily, and long before she encounters Mich, we know she's doomed. She is the embodiment of all that insane Mich longs for but is enraged by. Her only child is a boy, of course, and she lives in an old cottage in the woods that Mich used to haunt before he went away.

Much of the novel takes place in the days after Mich returns to his hometown, (not named but seemingly in rural County Clare) from England. The townsfolk call him the Kindershreck, a German word for a creature who frightens children. O'Brien explores how the people who have watched Mich grow up and turn into a monster do little to stop him as his violent actions come to a murderous crescendo. They are too frightened. Here the story steps out of time: how could it be in today's Ireland that no one would get it together to tell the authorities a madman is at large? Once the police do catch on, they seem strikingly powerless against this one crazy fellow. O'Brien may be making an important point about modern society, but her means of doing so stretches credibility.

It's a testament to O'Brien's descriptive powers that the scenes leading up to the killings are almost unbearable to read. Having set up the tragic trajectory that has Eily's life and Mich's intersecting, the author then lets the action unfold with horrifying inevitability. These two, plus two other people who get involved, are shown to be beyond help or hope.

Why should a writer of such talents tell this chilling story? It is powerful, no doubt, but it is neither edifying or revealing. Maybe O'Brien wants to point out that however civilized and settled human life becomes, evil exists within its bounds. Most people know that -- and don't need, or want, to read about it.

Clare McHugh, founding editor of the men's magazine Maxim is now an editor-at-large at Time Inc. She has served as editor-in-chief of New Woman and executive editor of Marie Claire.

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