The country girl’s home truths In the ForestEdna O’Brien 208pp, Weidenfeld A friend tells this story about Edna O’Brien; he was perhaps 10 at the time. His father, a writer of some renown, had a cabin in the woods, a holiday home for his large family. Guests sometimes came and shared the cosy if cramped quarters, including a bathroom at the far end of a kitchen where the writer and his family liked to sit at the table for leisurely meals and animated talk. During one such meal my friend recalls the bathroom door being suddenly thrown open, clouds of steam issuing forth and Edna O’Brien stepping out, naked but for the towel wrapped around her wet hair. She walked calmly past the family, now fallen into a profound silence, through the kitchen and to her room. It’s one of those moments when you feel sure someone must have paused for comic effect before asking if more sugar was wanted. It says so much about O’Brien, this naked flourish. What could be more natural in the informal, outdoorsy setting of a cabin in the woods? And what could be more knowing? In the early 1960s, she burst on to the public consciousness with the same thrilling mix of innocence and worldliness. The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (aka Girl With Green Eyes, 1962) and Girls in their Married Bliss (1963) are novels of justified fame. They follow Kate Brady and Baba Brennan – compelling creations of naivety and cunning, wisdom and daftness – from rural Ireland to Dublin and on to London. Though the novels’ treatment of sexual themes would hardly turn a hair today, the writing was daring for its time, and it remains powerfully erotic, among the sexiest prose in 20th-century English-language literature. Critics hailed the newcomer from Tuamgraney in County Clare, the west of Ireland, for the freshness of her talent and honesty of her voice. Here was a young woman writing about women’s desires, women’s hopes, women’s pleasures in a world where these went largely unacknowledged. Though The Country Girls appeared a full three years before sexual intercourse began, few then were unaware of the impact of a pretty young woman writing about sex. The Catholic church certainly felt it, and O’Brien found her books on the censorship index in Ireland. The priest in her village burned her novels in the churchyard. She received hate mail and vilification. It was all undoubtedly upsetting to the novelist, and you sense that it still smarts. “They used to ban my books, but now when I go there [to Ireland], people are courteous to my face, though rather slanderous behind my back,” she told George Plimpton. But, to take the hard-headed long view, since when has being banned been bad for a writer? It certainly wasn’t bad for O’Brien. She continued to explore themes of societal repression and female sexuality, with increasing sophistication and a more polished literary style. Her 1970s novels, A Pagan Place , Night and Johnny I Hardly Knew You, together with her short-story collections and plays, cemented her reputation. (Unlike John McGahern, the near-contemporary who, with O’Brien, did so much to influence the way the Irish thought and wrote about their world, O’Brien does not appear to find writing a trial.) There were some lapses. Striving for sensuality, O’Brien’s writing could be flowery, overdone. In love with language and the musicality of Anglo-Irish in particular, she sometimes used sound and cadence in a way that made you suspect she couldn’t be bothered with the drearier work involved in the construction of narrative and character; as though it was enough to come up with a striking phrase to fill the gaps. Some feminists also disliked the man-chasing that went on in her early books, a criticism – post-Bridget Jones – that she would hardly encounter today. Nevertheless, within a few years of her first novel, O’Brien – who, like Kate and Baba in the Country Girls trilogy, had moved to London – was transformed into a sophisticated woman of the metropolis, a major international literary figure, winner of countless prizes, friend of Harold Pinter, Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth and many more. O’Brien shares more than a friendship with Roth, and more than a shared emphasis on the centrality of the sexual (Roth used a quotation from O’Brien, “The body contains the life story just as much as the brain”, for his epigraph in The Dying Animal ). Their careers have followed a similar trajectory: dazzling, flamboyant, turbulent beginnings followed by restless middle periods in which the writer takes time (and books) to reconsider and recast, to work through what he has seen, what he has learned, and then arresting returns to form in which experience, style and subject successfully cohere. With Roth, American Pastoral announced the overdue but triumphant maturation of Nathan Zuckerman, simultaneously kinder and crueller than his earlier incarnations, sadder but wiser. With O’Brien, the new phase became apparent in her 1990 collection of stories, Lantern Slides . Set mostly in Ireland, the stories show O’Brien at her best: empathetic, passionate, cool and vivid. Like Kate and Baba, her characters are still looking for love – this is her real subject – but unlike the country girls, they now have a wisdom that is not just the instinctive understanding of bright young things but the self-knowledge that comes with wounds and experience. In 1994 House of Splendid Isolation appeared. Set once more in Ireland, it explored the Troubles – and love, of sorts – by pitching together an IRA man on the run and the elderly woman in whose house he takes refuge. To write the book, O’Brien went to Portlaoise prison to interview Dominic McGlinchey, one-time leader of the republican splinter group, the INLA. It is a very good book, but its reception was coloured by O’Brien’s apparent political sympathies. She has insisted that “responsibility for those terrible and tragic years [of the Troubles] lies with both the British government and the intransigence of unionist domination”, and in the early stages of the peace process she wrote favourable profiles of Gerry Adams – to which literary editors and critics in the south of Ireland, among whom Adams is anathema and republi canism is commonly described as “fascist”, reacted scornfully. O’Brien’s deepening seriousness of purpose and widening ambition as a novelist continued with Down By the River (1997). The novel was based on the real case of an underage rape victim who sought an abortion in England and prompted one of Ireland’s periodic bouts of soul-searching. Her style, though occasionally busy, was appropriately pared down. She was still writing intensely about love – more correctly, love’s absence from damaged lives – but it was clear she was writing about Ireland. These books were state-of-the-nation books, and so too is her latest novel, In the Forest . What is the state of the Irish nation that so absorbs O’Brien? Open the Irish Times on any day of the week and read the crime stories and court reports. Tales of sexual abuse and incest, robbery and racism, drug peddling and arson abound. They are no different from the stories you would find in any national newspaper anywhere in Europe. But this is the point. Ireland likes to think of itself as unlike anywhere in Europe. It wants all the benefits of 21st-century economic success and, simultaneously, the social cohesion, neighbourliness and charitable impulses of a (half-imagined) past – mobile phones without the muggings. The country was forced to take a long, hard look at itself in April 1994, when the newspapers carried accounts of tragic and horrific events in Clare, O’Brien’s own county. Brendan O’Donnell, a disturbed young man with a petty-criminal past, abducted and murdered Imelda Riney, her three-year-old son Liam, and a priest, Father Joseph Walshe, and dumped their bodies in Cregg Wood (the forest of O’Brien’s title). O’Donnell was captured after he abducted another woman. In July 1997, O’Donnell, serving a life sentence for the murders, was found dead by nursing staff in the Central Mental Hospital in Dublin. These are the events which inspired O’Brien to write In the Forest . It is a spare, compelling and compassionate novel. It would have been easy merely to recount O’Donnell’s childhood of neglect, and the abuse he suffered at the hands of the priests and officials into whose care he was taken; to make him an archetype of modern delinquency and alienation. But O’Brien goes much further, breathing life into the murderous youth she calls Mich O’Kane, making him terrifyingly and forlornly known to us. There is admirable economy in this characterisation, and menace of a kind at once mundane and comically, psychotically disconnected from reality, as when O’Kane hitches a lift with a woman driving on a lonely country road with her child. The woman – Moira – notices how fidgety her strange passenger is. “What’s worrying you?” “The guards are after me,” he says quite flatly. “For what?” “Robbery. I have to find somewhere to live. Do you have a sofa?” And a little further on: “My husband and I, we have a little business farther west.” “Do you sell helmets?” “No.” “Pity. A helmet is good cover for the face. I’m thinking of going to France for the summer – after I’ve done a few people.” A lesser writer would have rendered the scene melodramatically. In O’Brien’s hands, the drama is in the understatement. Everything is delivered “quite flatly”, even Moira’s terror. The whole thing is over very quickly, with the reader hardly aware of the level of threat until Moira drops off the hitchhiker and drives safely away. There is similar understatement in the murder scenes, both as they happen and as they are recounted in the later court hearing. Here there is an eerie moral and physical dislocation, echoing the voices in O’Kane’s head “telling him to be a desperado, to earn for himself the name and state of outlaw”, that heighten the reality and intensify the madness. It is all deceptively simple, but it is no mean achievement. Likewise, the world of the victims – particularly the young mother, Eily – has its own understatement, as well as its own stylistic dislocation, mirroring the world of the “blow-ins”, the refugees from modernity and materialism who come to the west of Ireland in search of a gentler, more spiritual life. People like Eily herself, with her floppy hat and hippy ways, or Otto the stonemason, carpenter and ladies’ man with a “wayward and wandering” past. In this Ireland women pose nude for painters, smoke joints, have sex and children out of wedlock, and look for love. All of O’Brien’s varied gifts as a novelist are on display. Though In the Forest garnered excellent reviews when it was published in America, in Ireland the response has been hostile. O’Brien has been accused of exploiting tragedy for profit, of intruding into private grief, of writing about an Ireland she no longer knows or understands. The intemperateness of the language and the contortion and inconsistency of the charges against her lead you to suspect there are other motives at work. Her enduring success and continuing international acclaim, perhaps? The treatment of republicans in her journalism and fiction? Daring to write about Ireland while not living there? Literary Ireland can be a very petty place indeed; O’Brien can safely ignore it. But what we can be glad she has not ignored is the other Ireland, the Ireland that made Brendan O’Donnell/Mich O’Kane. At his trial, O’Kane’s barrister addresses the jury: “The young man did not deserve to stand there alone, because the country itself was on trial, it had failed him.” Which is why the writing of In the Forest was not just a worthwhile enterprise, but a necessary and successful one. · Ronan Bennett is a novelist and screenwriter.