Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Saints and Sinners
Edna O'Brien's writing is bold and straightforward. Her sentences are charged with layers of meaning, but she does not keep us guessing. She does not mind telling us information and, at the same time, she crafts each story like an artist, selecting the precise words for each sentence as if they were the brushstrokes of a painting that depicts vivid landscapes and characters in realistic situations, with endings that satisfy my expectations. By the time I finish reading them, I feel content. Through the eleven stories of this collection, Edna carries us to both rural and urban Ireland, London, and New York.
"Two Mothers", an autobiographical story, reveals the ambiguity of the relationship between the narrator and her mother, showing two opposing aspects of it. Edna O' Brien starts out with the image of a dream in which her mother's hand is on a razor, and she sees her face "swimming" towards the narrator "to mete out its punishment". When they lived together, mother and daughter were close but not intimately connected. Her mother did not understand her daughter's compulsion to write; she was even horrified at the thought of her daughter becoming a writer:
"She insisted that literature was a precursor to sin and damnation, whereas I believed it was the only alchemy that there was." Edna dives into her childhood and makes her mother jump out of the page: "She had beautiful hair, brown with bronzed glimmers in it, and blue-blue eyes that held within them an infinite capacity for stricture. To chastise one she did not have to speak -- her eyes did it with a piercing gaze. But when she approved of something, everything seemed to soften and the gaze, intensely blue, was like seeing a stained-glass window melt."
There comes a time when the narrator vanishes from her mother, or perhaps from her lack of acceptance. Then her mother starts a copious correspondence. "She who professed disgust at the written word wrote daily, bulletins that ranged from the pleading to the poetic, the philosophic and the common place." The narrator postponed the opening of these letters for many years. This is a story that made me cry, for I was able to empathize deeply with both characters. When she finally opens her mother's letters, there is a hint of intimate connection, and secrets are revealed.
"Sinners" is about the lonely life of a woman, Delia, who uses her house as a bed and breakfast place during the summer months. Edna transports us to her solitary existence, providing details about the workings of Delia's mind. Confined to her routine, Delia has forgotten the little pleasures of life and becomes a person who sees a sin behind any act that does not look conventional.
"Shovel Kings" is the story of an exile who migrated from Ireland to England. A transitory return to Ireland makes him come to the realization that he no longer belongs to Ireland...nor to England.
"Manhattan Medley" is an imaginary letter a woman writes to her lover. Her musings bring to my mind the poem by Neruda that says that "Love is so short, forgetting is so long". This woman, however, did not forget her lover and there are witty reflections that I savored and enjoyed reading more than once. The nostalgia she infuses into this story is powerful. "Even if I lingered here, there, or anywhere it would still run its course, in letters, in longings, and the whet of absence."
"Send My Roots Rain" is also about love and longing. A woman is waiting for a poet at a coffee shop and, while waiting for him, she reminisces about past relationships.
"Old Wounds" is about family relationships and conflicts between relatives.
"Plunder" is the story of a conventional family living in a rural setting who is attacked by soldiers.
"Black Flower" is about the relationship between a prisoner and a woman who volunteers to give art classes at the prison.
Edna O'Brien is not afraid of revealing the pain, the misery, the longing and the love of the characters, and, at the heart of her stories, she unveils the frailty of human nature, its naked vulnerability and isolation.