Saints and Sinners
by Edna O'Brien
Awards: Shortlisted, 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award
night or thereabouts. The heat belching up from the grids in the
pavement, trumpet, or was it trombone, and the hands of the homeless,
the fingers thin and suppliant, like twigs, outstretched for alms.
Reviewed by Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Edna O’Brien is in my "stable of giants", as E.B. White called his literary heroes; she
is a national icon in Ireland, but one who is perhaps not as
treasured as she might be. When poet Séamus Heaney turned 70 there
was much fanfare; Edna O’Brien celebrated her 80th
birthday in December 2010 and there was barely a whisper. Having had
novels banned in the 1960s and writing another controversial one
in the 1990s, based on a notorious triple murder, O’Brien is no
stranger to controversy. Luckily for us, none of that has stayed her
hand and she continues to write both fiction and non-fiction. She has
always been comfortable in the short story form but this latest
collection Saints and Sinners is her first book of short
stories in twenty years.
a short story takes quite a long time," she said in an interview on
RTÉ Radio 1 recently, and most of the stories in this book are new –
she sat down and "applied" herself. She said she cannot work on
stories while writing a novel and that the first story alone took
five months to write. "Writing is a bit painful and very exacting
for me"’ she said. "You must put a lot of potency and energy into
a story to make it work. It has to hit like a bullet."
left Ireland sixty years ago but still writes almost exclusively
about it. "Ireland is a good haunter," she said, in that same
radio interview. And the stories in this book are heavy with
poignancy for an Ireland that is often not kind to her characters.
Many of the stories reflect on ageing, family rifts, and exile, from
both the self and from home. The stories are generally not maudlin or
nostalgic – mostly the lives of these characters are harsh and
hopeless, and there is a firm look to the past in the stories.
has a delicate style in which "language is sacred" as she once
said. I heard her read in Cork in 2008 and on that occasion she said, "When I put pen to paper, sorrow invades the pen." That is
certainly true of this collection, but the bursts of beautiful
language that are such a hallmark of O’Brien’s prose, lift the
atmosphere in her stories. She is gifted with language: she has a
style like no other, she is formal and casual, reserved yet
colloquial – to my ear, she has a register that is unique to
herself, but that is also very Irish.
An example from the story, Old Wounds:
boats] arrived as the hatched mayflies came out of the nearby bushes
and floated above the water, in bacchanalian swarms, so that the
fishermen were easily able to catch them and fix them to the hooks of
their long rods."
later, in the same story: "
When my turn came, I would rest on
Edward’s coffin, with runners underneath to cushion the
weight...[Neighbour’s children] threw roses with a certain
theatricality, and one of them blushed fiercely. They might as easily
have been at a beauty contest."
the first and last stories in the collection, O’Brien employs a
first person narrative where the narrator retells a second
character’s life. This device feels a little unwieldy, particularly
in Shovel Kings; a greater immediacy might have been achieved
if the narrative voice had in fact been that of the old man,
Rafferty, rather than the reader hearing him through the filter of
Wounds examines the way in which generational rifts in families
can repeat themselves. It is packed with the awkward pettiness that
often exists between family members – in this case a pair of
elderly first cousins – who are vying with each other for supremacy
in the family’s pecking order, even when all the others are dead.
Set mostly in an island graveyard on the river Shannon in the West of
Ireland, the story is as much about what is left unsaid as what is
is a sense of lives lived wrongly in this collection – that bad
decisions were made and therefore consequences are being lived with.
There is corruption – as in Inner Cowboy, where a quarry
owner threatens the witness to an industrial accident; there is
mayhem and fear in Plunder, a chilling story of a dystopian
fatherland where the border disappears overnight and parents go
missing without explanation. Overall the feeling in these stories is
one of sadness – melancholy being O’Brien’s trademark. The
cover has a quote from Alice Munro: "Edna O’Brien writes the most
beautiful, aching stories of any writer, anywhere." It is her
ability to make the reader ache while reading her stories that marks
Edna O’Brien out as the literary giant that she is.
|Nuala Ní Chonchúir's début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a
heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times and ‘a gem’ by The
Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude was
shortlisted for the UK’s Edge Hill Prize; her third poetry
collection The Juno Charm appears from Salmon Poetry in 2011.
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in 1930 in County Clare, Ireland. She has two sons, one of whom is
writer Carlo Gébler. In 1959 O’Brien moved to London, where she
books include Love Object, August is a Wicked Month, Casualties of
Peace, The Country Girls, The Dazzle, Down by the River, The
Expedition, Girl with Green Eyes, Girls in their Married Bliss, The
High Road, House of Splendid Isolation, Johnny I Hardly Knew You, The
Lonely Girl, Night, A Pagan Place, Time and Tide, Vanishing Ireland
and Zee and Co.