Edna O'Brien surpasses herself

Mother and daughter, family and country - the unbreakable ties

Review Novel

October 22, 2006|By Judith M. Redding | Judith M. Redding,Special to the Sun

The Light of Evening

Edna O'Brien

Houghton Mifflin / 304 pages / $25

Veteran novelist Edna O'Brien, the author of 20 volumes of fiction and an Irish expatriate living in London for more than 40 years, has been called one of the greatest writers in the English-speaking world. Her latest and most complex novel yet, The Light of Evening, proves that such lavish praise is indeed justified. O'Brien is a writer whose work only gets better and richer as she ages.

O'Brien's literary interests have always been far-ranging; however, the decades of her expatriation have not diminished her focus, which has remained implacably Ireland, her most defining influence. Her readers have come to know Ireland in all its aspects: its people and starkly beautiful landscape, the all-pervasive Roman Catholic Church, the complications of The Troubles and the IRA, the poverty and hope to succeed - all through the intensity of her novels and stories.

The Light of Evening takes a more autobiographical turn in this novel of mothers and daughters, country and countenance: Here are all the deepest ties that bind, ever O'Brien's metier.

O'Brien's style has always been oblique and multi-faceted, despite the lush clarity of her prose; she is the quintessential Irish storyteller, but like her fellows, gives nothing to the reader easily. In her latest novel, she weaves a subtextual tale of her own life with those of her two central characters, the aging Dilly and her daughter, the writer, Eleanora.

Dilly does what many girls of the 1920s did: She emigrates to America and spends part of her youth working as a domestic servant in Brooklyn, which introduces her to a wholly different life from the hardscrabble one she left. It gives her options - or so she thinks.

O'Brien tells Dilly's tale retrospectively as she awaits her daughter Eleanora's visit to her bedside. The two are estranged by the complications of their lives, by what Dilly wanted and couldn't have, by what Eleanora achieves and doesn't. While Dilly waits and yearns for reconciliation with the daughter she has ached to have at her side, Dilly recalls her own life, and how mother and daughter came to be in this place.

Dilly's time in America does what it had done for so many emigres: It offered her freedom. The contrast between her former life and her new one is underscored by letters from home. Her mother, Bridget, forever exhorting her to write home, pleading for her return, makes clear why that world no longer holds anything for Dilly. Yet after Dilly's brother, a Republican guerrilla, is killed by government troops and Dilly's engagement to an Irish-American lumberjack unravels, Dilly returns to Ireland. But attired in her finest American clothes, she discovers her mother will not allow her to help with the household chores, considering her now to be "a lady."

Once home, the oppression of their life begins to seep in - the harshness has not diminished, nor have the losses, and Dilly decides to marry Con, a charismatic horse-breeder and gambler, a choice she makes in large part because he will be able to help her family financially. Ironically, instead of providing stability, Con must sell off his land a parcel at a time to settle his gambling debts.

Dilly's daughter, Eleanora, very much like her mother when young, seeks a different future, and elopes with an older, married writer, a foreigner. She eventually marries him, raises two sons, and embarks on her own successful literary career.

As Eleanora drifts away from her mother, their estrangement deepening, Dilly finds herself reprising her own mother's painful role: exhorting her daughter to write, to make their relationship part of her life. It is a painful, empty pleading.

When Dilly is admitted to a Dublin hospital for observation, Eleanora guiltily feels the need to make some kind of peace between them, although it is not the close relationship that Dilly craves. Dilly, a practical woman, is bound by blood ties; Eleanora isn't: She's bound only by ideas and her own creativity.

O'Brien's work often incorporates autobiographical elements, but never so overtly as in The Light of Evening, in which the "E" of Eleanora shifts subtly to become the "I" of O'Brien.

The parallels are many in this novel: O'Brien's mother worked as a domestic servant in New York. Eleanora's marriage to an older writer who becomes jealous of her success is an apt depiction of O'Brien's 13-year marriage to the Czech writer Ernest Gebler. O'Brien's work was shunned by the Catholic Church (which she never fails to discuss when she gives readings), as is Eleanora's work. The confluent scandals of Eleanora's life and O'Brien's come together in The Light of Evening.

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