Saints and Sinners
 by Edna O'Brien

Faber 2011

Awards: Shortlisted, 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

"Midsummer 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.

"Writing 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."

She 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.

O’Brien 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:
"[The 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."
And, 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."
In 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 the narrator.

Old 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 shared.

There 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.
Nuala's other Short Reviews: Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"   

Patrick Chapman "The Wow Signal"

Kuzhali Manickavel "Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings"

Moira Crone "What Gets Into Us"

Michael J. Farrell "Life in the Universe"

Simon van Booy "Love Begins in Winter"

Teresa Svoboda "Trailer Girl"
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Edna O'Brien was born 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 lives still. Her 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.