The doyenne of Irish letters, Edna O’Brien, first made her name as an astute chronicler of female interiority nearly half a century ago. Her new collection, The Love Object, presents us with the very finest of her short stories—31 examples of her shimmering prose, spanning her career. Presented together in one volume, the end result is a staggering achievement: a masterclass in the form, each story a perfectly polished work of art, complete and fully realized on a miniature scale.
Her stories that concern young women awakening on their journeys from innocence to experience are still as powerful now as when they originally appeared. In “Irish Revel,” the story with which the collection opens, 17-year-old Mary sets out from her family’s mountain farm to attend her first party down in the village. As she cycles excitedly along the lanes, she dares to dream that John Roland, the handsome young English painter who stole her heart while he lodged with her family for four days two summers ago, has returned to see her: “The mail-car man said that someone special at the Commercial Hotel expected her.” Her delicate young heart is thus dealt a cruel blow when she discovers that what she has mistaken for an invitation is actually nothing more than a summons from Mrs. Rodgers, the hotel’s proprietress, to help with the preparations for the (Roland-less) party.
“In the front room Mary polished glasses. Tears ran down her cheeks, so she did not put on the light. She foresaw how the party would be; they would all stand around and consume the goose, which was now simmering in the turf range. The men would be drunk, the girls giggling. Having eaten, they would dance and sing and tell ghost stories, and in the morning she would have to get up early and be home in time to milk. She moved toward the dark pane of window with a glass in her hand and looked out at the dirtied streets, remembering how once she had danced with John on the upper road to no music at all, just their hearts beating and the sound of happiness.”
“When I read that story again, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I wrote that nearly 50 years ago’, but re-reading it, I wasn’t ashamed,” O’Brien tells me when I ask her about how it felt to re-visit the older stories in the collection.
I’m struck by her turn of phrase—“ashamed” seems a strange word to use, but it carries connotations of the guilt and shame infused in the Catholicism of her childhood, and I certainly can’t dismiss it as an ill-advised choice for she’s a woman who spends her life searching for precisely the right word for what she’s trying to convey.
“I think at my own funeral I’ll be changing a word, or words,” she says, speaking of her current struggle with her proofs for her forthcoming novel The Little Red Chairs—the story of a war criminal who comes to a small Irish village where he practices as a healer and everyone falls in love with him—along with the script she’s writing for a new theatrical version of The Country Girls for the Williamstown Festival in Massachusetts in August.
“The words are circling around in my head for this that and the other—is that the right word, is that the right word…” she tails off, her voice descending into a barely audible whisper.
We’re sitting in the first-floor living room of her house in London’s Knightsbridge, hidden away in one of the small side streets around the back of Harrods, a quiet haven only a stone’s throw away from the busy Brompton Road. She sits on the sofa, having generously insisted I take the beautiful leather desk chair opposite; the “comfy one,” she explains. The room is packed with floor-to-ceiling shelves heaving with books—as are other rooms, she assures me, those I peek into as we pass by and those on the floor above that I don’t see. She apologies for the mess, but I don’t really see any, or at least not by my standards. I tell her this and she warns me of the “boxes and boxes” of papers upstairs. She writes by hand, her sentences only typed up once she’s happy with the fruit of her labour. There are at least 20 boxes of pages for The Little Red Chairs upstairs, she confesses, describing the book as “agony” to write.
“It gets harder with each book because you have to dig a little deeper,” she explains, “and if you’ve dug deep more or less from the outset, it’s hard then to keep going to the bottom of the well with the bucket.”
It might be hard to believe, but O’Brien famously wrote her first novel The Country Girls in the space of only three short weeks. “I was like someone possessed,” she recalls.
“I’d love to write something like that again,” she tells me. “I’d write it under a pseudonym if I could,” she adds. “I often think how lucky I was doing that at the time, but I didn’t realize that then of course. I realize it now because I can’t recapture it. It’s not that I was carefree or careless, but that story and those girls were waiting, they were just ready to sing.”
First published in 1960, The Country Girls (along with the two following novels, Girl With Green Eyes and Girls in their Married Bliss that together make up what’s now referred to as her Country Girls Trilogy) tells the story of Caithleen ‘Kate’ Brady and her friend Baba, two young girls on the cusp of womanhood eager to embrace life and love beyond the confines of their strict upbringing in rural Ireland. The Country Girls sent shockwaves through a God-fearing Ireland, O’Brien’s own family included, where it was widely considered something, to return to her earlier phrase, very much to be ashamed of. Her work was denounced by the church, banned, and in some cases copies were even publically burned, and she—living in London at the time—became her country’s most notorious exiled daughter; but she didn’t stop writing.
Does it bother her that even now after such a long time has passed people still remember her as Ireland’s infamous literary Jezebel?
“It gets a bit boring, yes, to tell you the truth,” she says. “It’s irrelevant now, and it would be nice to have a little alteration in the dramatic narrative.”
O’Brien grew up in a farming family in County Clare. One of four siblings, she attended convent school as a child, before moving to Dublin to study as a pharmacist. When she was 23 she married the Irish writer Ernest Gébler, with whom she had two sons. The couple left Ireland and moved to London, but Gébler was increasingly jealous of O’Brien’s work and the marriage ended in the early ’60s. Supporting herself through her writing, O’Brien remained in London, where she’s lived—bar a period in the 1990s when she moved to rural Donegal, and brief teaching stints in America—ever since.
For anyone who’s read Country Girl, the memoir she published in 2012, it’s not hard to map her own life on her fiction. What she writes is “stimulated by real life,” she confirms when I ask her about this overlapping, “it’s fed by it.”
Similarly, remnants of her life are littered throughout the stories in The Love Object, particularly those from her childhood. That O’Brien returns to the landscape of her childhood and adolescence for so many of her stories keenly demonstrates the pull of the old country. Many of these works are pervaded by a slow, sad, haunting desperation—like the steady, dull thudding of monotonous Irish rain—but then, like a lone flash of lightning, O’Brien lashes out, striking at the very heart of the matter: “I thought that ours was a land of shame, a land of murder and a land of strange sacrificial women,” concludes the narrator of “A Scandalous Woman.”
Here we have the rural Ireland of O’Brien’s own upbringing: the vestiges of more glorious days of yore in the form of large, crumbling houses—“Anything can happen to three people who languish in a house, a big house, a damp house, a house with gongs on the kitchen wall and many dank passages which could so with a lick of paint but for a chronic shortage of money. People can drive each other mad in such circumstances,” she writes in “Oft in the Stilly Night’; the claustrophobia and ennui of village life—the protagonist of “Green Georgette“ whose “longing” is mixed with “a mounting rage”: “Our lives seemed so drab, so uneventful. I prayed for drastic things to occur—for the bullocks to rise up and mutiny, then gore one another, for my father to die in his sleep, for our school to catch fire, and for Mr. Coughlan to take a pistol and shoot his wife, before shooting himself”; the church, always the omnipresent, repressive church; and her relationship with her family, in particular her mother.
“Forgiveness, unforgiveness, and, if you like, part-time forgiveness are some of the great themes of writing,” O’Brien tells me. “Like in ‘A Rose in the Heart of New York’—it’s a story about a mother, who in many ways is my mother, but she’s also the archetype mother,” and here she breaks off to quote lines from the story as one would poetry:
“Her mother was the cup, the cupboard, the sideboard with all the things in it, the tabernacle with God in it, the lake with the legends in it, the bog with the wishing well in it, the sea with the oysters and the corpses in it, her mother a gigantic sponge, a habitation in which she longed to sink and disappear forever and ever.”
Her voice is melodious, picking up a rhythm in the language and syntax one might miss if the lines aren’t read aloud—something she does as she writes, over and over again, “And I tell you,” she says almost sternly, in a complete departure from her usual gentle tone, “when it doesn’t stand up, you can tell.”
“I’m very impatient with books where a writer tells us everything is hunky-dory, that they’ve forgiven everyone and found peace with their fathers and are making cakes with their mothers. Baloney! There’s no such thing. Human nature is much too complex and variable and contradictory for that kind of easy end. J.D. Salinger was the wise one to put it so succinctly; many writers are the result of what he called ‘everything about my lousy parents.’
“The cast of characters that keep occurring in our fictions are extensions of the characters that we meet very early on in life. They’re built up a bit, but there’s a resemblance.”
She recalls indictments made by readers in the past who have accused her of writing about “the narrow world of the heart.”
“Well, the heart ain’t that narrow, and the heart keeps beating,” she counters. “I used to get attacked a lot—I’ve had a slightly better fate in the last five or six years—I was constantly attacked by very, very raucous feminists about my material, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I bet they’ve been in love. I bet they’ve had a phone hung up on them. I bet they’ve made a call in the middle of the night.’ But it was this thing that you must toe the line. I don’t want to toe the line; I want to write what’s urgent!”
Her “narrow world of the heart” was, she readily admits, originally predominantly that of female experience, but this, she explains was because the world she had access to as she was growing up was one of women.
“First of all I was very frightened of men,” she says, in a statement that includes her own father, a man whose drunken binges instilled great fear in her, probably best captured in the opening lines of The Country Girls:
“I wakened quickly and sat up in bed abruptly. It is only when I am anxious that I waken easily and for a minute I did not know why my heart was beating faster than usual. Then I remembered. The old reason. He had not come home.”
“Also, the world of men was very separate to the world of women,” she continues, “so I did write more about women, and so what?” she ends defiantly.
Some of the female characters in The Love Object are indeed “strange” creatures—the woman with “round rosy cheeks,” her face “more like something you could eat or lick; she reminded me of nothing so much as an apple fritter,” or a spiteful, cruel schoolteacher, jealous of a bright pupil, who struck fear in the hearts of the superstitious villagers who “felt that she could give us children brains or take them away as a witch might.”
Most, however, are alienated due to a deep sense of unfulfillment, sacrificed to marriage or motherhood, and even those who have escaped these ties that bind—such as the London-dwelling protagonist of “The Love Object,” a divorcée with children away at boarding school who’s having an affair with a famous, older man—are no happier as a result. “I own books and records and various bottles of scent and beautiful clothes, but I never buy cleaning stuffs or aids for prolonging property. I expect it is improvident, but I just throw things away,” explains the woman after her lover asks her for a clothes brush the morning after the night before, and like everything in her life, so too this passion is ephemeral, eventually dissolving away into nothing. O’Brien’s characters are often longing; whether for something or someone, it barely matters; it’s the sense of an absence that pervades their stories.
I like to think it is no coincidence that echoed in the title of the collection is the term “the lost object.” This is perhaps distilled most potently in “The Rug,” in which a daughter remembers the mysterious arrival of a beautiful sheepskin, “thick and soft and luxurious.” The parcel has a Dublin postmark, perhaps it’s been sent by relatives in America, the girl’s mother muses—“One of her few dreams was to be remembered by relatives who had gone to America”—but is accompanied by no letter or return address. Lovingly looked after, “taken out on Saturdays and shaken well,” the mother’s world comes crashing down the day her husband’s namesake (hence the confusion) turns up to claim his missing gift. Her sharp-eyed daughter observes the scene with a keen eye for the depth of her mother’s hurt: “As she watched him go down the avenue she wept, not so much for the loss —though the loss was enormous—as for her own foolishness in thinking that someone had wanted to do her a kindness at last.”
Many of the stories hinge on similar moments of realization that silently shake the very foundations of their subjects’ worlds. In “The Connor Girls” a young wife suddenly comprehends the shifting allegiance that marriage entails: “at that moment I realised that by choosing his world I had said goodbye to my own and to those in it. By such choices we gradually become exiles, until at last we are quite alone.” While in “A Scandalous Woman” a young girl balances precariously between child- and adulthood before tumbling over the abyss: “That moment had an air of mystery and sanctity about it, what with the surprise and our speechlessness, and a realization somewhere in the back of my mind that we were engaged in rotten business indeed, and that our larking days were over.”
It’s rare these days for a week to go by without a novel by a new female author being launched into the world with descriptions like “urgent,” “raw,” and “powerful” attached to it, and considering O’Brien’s work blazed the trail for much of this fiction, I’m intrigued to know what she makes of these contemporary offerings.
“That’s a can of worms I have no desire to open,” she replies. What she will say though is that it’s not the material that matters; it’s how that material is dealt with.
“I don’t want to read tedious book. I do not want clichés,” she clarifies, the timbre of her voice increasing to match the emphasis of her words and the strength of her opinions, “and I do not want domestic ordinariness served up to me on a dinner plate. I don’t want it because it has no momentum. Sometimes I see a slackness and an ego as opposed to a perfectionism. What matters is the internal tension and power. Not many shine, not many delve deep into the theme so it becomes not their story but the reader’s story. There’s too much subjectivity, the wrong kind of subjectivity. People want nourishment when they read, they don’t want someone else’s ego trip.”
One of the wonderful things about The Love Object is how one can trace the developments in O’Brien’s career through its pages, watching the subtle shift between these earlier narratives of female experience and her later work that addresses the broader issues of Irish history and politics. “Shovel Kings,” for example, tells the story of the men who came over from Ireland to work as laborers building the roads of London, and allows her protagonist what she describes to me as “the same universe of feelings that I’d give to a woman character if I was writing her story.”
The story was a “step up,” she says, “a transition to a different kind of writing.” Not just because she was dealing with a male protagonist, but because it was “a way of writing about exile that wasn’t my exile alone, but that of someone quite opposite to me.”
The subject of exile, of course, is a strand that runs through her work. It’s impossible to write about O’Brien without at least mentioning the Who’s Who of celebrities she found herself mingling with in London in the ’60s— Sean Connery, Marianne Faithfull, and Jane Fonda to name but a few—Paul McCartney sang bedtime lullabies to her sons, Richard Burton rang the doorbell of her house one Monday night and then spent the evening reciting Shakespeare in her living room, and she took LSD with R.D. Laing.
“It still baffles me how I came to know all these people,” she writes in Country Girl, “some serendipity threw us together and united us in the chimaera of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. It was a more innocent time. The famous were not so famous, and were not surrounded by gloating cohorts.”
As stimulating and exciting as these figures are, though, ultimately it’s a life away from the bright lights to which O’Brien turns. She describes becoming more and more “divided”: between the woman who held famous Saturday night parties, and the writer who spent her weekdays closeted away at the top of her house working alone. What she chose in the end was her writing, and with it a life of relative isolation and seclusion: the only existence conducive to her work since it’s an act that requires time and solitude.
“When I am writing—that’s why I hate the phone, reality, having to get the dinner and all that—I write as if I’m far away from anything else.”
But the sacrifice she’s made for this, has it been something of a Faustian pact?
“I live by myself and have done for a long, long time,” she says softly. “Now, of course, I would be a liar if I didn’t say, ‘Yes, I am lonely for love’—I am, I always will be, I have no doubt about that. But the other side of the scenario is that I can give all my time to my work, and that’s both a luxury and a loneliness.”