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The Mother Load

Edna O’Brien’s dark look at the mother-daughter bond.

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The first 10 pages of The Light of Evening took me about an hour to read. My husband mocked me from the other couch: “Have you gotten to Page 4 yet?” I’m not the only person who has waded, rather than leapt, into Edna O’Brien. Her admirers—who include Frank McCourt and Alice Munro—urge us to go slowly, to savor her writing. It’s dazzling, they say. Also, radiant. But that’s not why it took me an hour. It took me an hour because I was bored, and it was hard.

O’Brien has her own language, stilted and cumbrous when you first encounter it. The novel opens with a crow flying into the County Clare farmyard of an old woman named Dilly Macready: “It gives Dilly the shivers, it does, and she storing her precious bits and pieces for safety’s sake. Wrapping the cut glasses in case her husband, Cornelius, is mad enough to use them or lay one down before Crotty the workman, who’d fling it on a hedge or a headland as if it were a billy can.”

These ought to be straightforward sentences—after all, the words are familiar and unfancy. But O’Brien has grouped them in a weird bouquet. I found myself working for meaning. Wait, who’s Crotty, and why’s he flinging things at headlands? So it went throughout those first pages and chapters: O’Brien’s sentences, deceptively plain-spoken, seemed to set me on my ear. I found myself paying attention, something I sometimes forget to do as a constant reader.

I made my way along as through a thicket, and the story began to coalesce: Dilly has shingles, and possibly worse. She’s headed for the hospital. Her husband will stay behind, at their beloved farm, Rusheen. Once in the hospital, she is put in the care of the cruel Nurse Flaherty. “Jangled now, Dilly is thinking who might rescue her from there. It cannot be Cornelius, nor Dr. Fogarty, nor her hard-boiled son, Terence. It has to be Eleanora. She pictures her beyond in England with the shelves of books up to the ceiling and white flowers, usually lilies, in a big pewter jug, insouciant, mindless of this plea.”

Eleanora is her daughter, a famous writer, who has left Ireland for England and left her mother for what Dilly sees as a series of godless relationships. While Dilly waits for Eleanora, she slips into a reverie, remembering her own flight from Ireland when she herself was a girl. Maintaining her offhanded, elliptical tone, O’Brien gives us a meticulously researched, gorgeously detailed, and at times quite frightening portrait of turn-of-the-century immigrant America.

Here I noticed that a change had come over my reading. It wasn’t a miracle, or a door swinging open, or a bright light shining down, but I had become absorbed into O’Brien’s writing. Her uncompromising voice had made me compromise and adapt myself to her cadences and processes. Here Dilly remembers heading off to catch the ship to America: “A bumpy ride over the wintry roads and where bridges had collapsed we got out and walked, then back on again and the coachmen belting the two horses with all his might … ” I jostled through the sentence with O’Brien, following her on her difficult, remembering way. O’Brien uses words as tools for reaching back into the past. It’s as though she’s worried that if she makes her sentences too facile, the easy language will supplant her real, idiosyncratic memories. Once I fitted myself to her, what had seemed a chore turned into both pleasure and necessity: Her excavation of the past became quietly thrilling. What would she find next?

This quietude marks a change, or rather a return, for O’Brien, who in the last couple of decades has demonstrated a marked taste for blood. Her 1997 novel Down by the River shows us a father raping a daughter, in language alternating—equally disturbingly—between funny, matter-of-fact, and eerily beautiful. In the Forest shocked Ireland with its fictionalization of a famous 1994 triple murder. The Light of Evening is a novel about estrangement, horrifying and exhilarating in its own way, but hardly the hellacious stuff she’s been working with. The novel recalls instead O’Brien’s early Country Girls trilogy in its themes of Ireland, home, family, and escape.

O’Brien is, in fact, a writer constantly balancing two impulses: the poetic and the sensational. You could also call this the tension between language and plot. It’s rare to find a writer who’s so consistently interested in both. And yet O’Brien seems deeply committed to both excitement and lyricism. As a reviewer, I have grown to loathe the word “lyrical.” It’s a tip-off: A book blurbed as lyrical is going to be underplotted, or cheesy, or pretentious, or all of the above. But O’Brien’s lyricism is a constant pursuit of beauty and meaning, and it’s always traveling up and down a spine of plot.

Sometimes this lyricism does get away from her, and she wanders off into the territory of sentimentalism, as when Dilly travels across the Atlantic below deck. “In the evening the sound of the orchestra drifted down as the first-class passengers danced and sat down to their five-course dinners. Earlier we were allowed up on deck to do our own dancing and a fiddler from Galway played with a gusto.” I, for one, am a little bored and even annoyed by this scene; I’ve been here before, and it was with Leonardo DiCaprio of all people. But then O’Brien is off again, saved by her more brutal impulses as she shifts her attention to the story of a young mother who has gotten rid of her newborn infant. O’Brien writes the kind of unflinching novels where babies, not jewels, get flung overboard.

For a time, Dilly lives an exile’s life, just as her daughter does years later. Ireland seems to spit the Macready women out. In Brooklyn, Dilly gets a job, bunks down with a cousin, becomes a live-in servant for a posh family, gets fired, falls in love, and is betrayed. Unlike her daughter, Dilly puts her tail between her legs and heads back to Ireland. There she falls in love with Cornelius, who loves to drink and breed racehorses, both of which prove ruinous for the family. But Cornelius, the husband and father, is hardly important here. It’s only mothers and daughters who count.

When Dilly’s memories leave off, the novel breaks for a long, disturbing depiction of Eleanora’s own marriage to an ascetic Casaubon type named Hermann. Despite his determination to quash her morally and emotionally, she becomes a writer, leaving him behind for a literary life in London and affairs sprinkled over the globe like currants on a bun. Some of this material is clearly autobiographical: For many years, O’Brien was hated in Ireland for her frank portraits of life there, just as Eleanora is. O’Brien lives in London, as Eleanora does. But this is autobiography inverted. The book belongs to Dilly. Eleanora is important and central to this novel insofar as she is important and central to Dilly. O’Brien has willed and imagined herself into a mother’s perspective on what looks a lot like her own life.

The very end of the novel is simply a string of letters that Dilly has written to Eleanora over the years. The letters are by turns hilarious and nagging and shaming and smart, and if we had read them at the outset of the novel, we might have found them too guilt-trippy to bear. But having lived inside Dilly’s perspective for the bulk of the novel, we can see the real emotion buried here, as when Dilly sends a cake to Eleanora: “[M]ake a hole in the top with a knitting needle and pour a glass of whiskey into it to keep it moist.” There’s a world of denial of her daughter’s real life in Dilly’s assumption that Eleanora would be in possession of a knitting needle, let alone bother to apply it to a cake. The book’s gift is that it is able to reveal this denial as love.

In the end, as Dilly lies in the hospital, Eleanora fails her mother’s love, but somehow her failure seems entirely beside the point. O’Brien redeems Eleanora, and maybe herself, by focusing the novel so entirely on Dilly. Turning away from the glamorous daughter, who is the more obvious object of attention, O’Brien looks hard at the homely, left-behind mother. The book’s attention is a kind of tribute to motherhood. At the same time, this is hardly a saccharine affair. Those letters from Dilly carry love but also an undeniable charge: I will not be forgotten. You will never really get away from me, no matter how far you flee.

When I finished the thing, I flipped back to the opening pages. The sentences that had hung me up seemed packed with life and humor: When Dilly puts the glasses away “in case her husband, Cornelius, is mad enough to use them,” I could now hear her wry acknowledgment of the fact that the family never actually drinks from the good crystal. The brief passage is filled with information: about genteel poverty and about a woman’s affable contempt for men in general, and her husband in particular, all told from Dilly’s point of view.

O’Brien’s language, so troubling at first, seemed to render me useless for other writers, who in comparison come off as both indelicate and afraid. Where others turn away, O’Brien rushes forward, her knives drawn for clean parsing of the real feelings that pass between two people. The bookshops are lousy with mother-daughter novels. The Light of Evening stands apart, refusing to give mere comfort. O’Brien doesn’t just believe in the power of the bond between generations. She fears it.