- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007


By Edna O’Brien

Houghton Mifflin, $25, 304 pages


Perhaps only the Irish can write with a pen alternately dipped in clotted cream and acid and Ms. O’Brien has certainly mastered the art of both.

This is a rich kaleidoscope, full of haunting and haunted reminiscence. She paints Ireland as “the wet green world into which the rain has poured and now sunshine lighting upon everything, fields of grass a pulsing green and rivers overflowing … the rained-on roads drying out, ranges of mountains in the distance a molded blue at one with the horizon.”

And she offers a memoir reminiscent of Dickens’ portrayals of the miseries of English urban poverty in her Irish immigrant’s first Christmas as a bullied domestic in New York — “America was a land of bluff and blighted dreams and I would be lucky if I got a job as a maid in a big house. I would be a Biddy, a kitchen canary.”

She explores the darkness that can beset human relationships, bridging generations with poignant letters between mothers and daughters. The letters form the core of the book, memorable in their capacity to conjure up the desperate attempts at communication. There are the anger-frosted messages from Bridget, the mother left behind in an Ireland torn by poverty and religious violence, to Dilly, the child who has escaped to America. Bridget assumes that her child not only has fled to a better life, but has abandoned her homeland.

“Do you not recall our situation here? We are barely able to keep a roof over our heads?” she implored.

Ironically, Dilly is still struggling with the problems that she had lived with in Ireland, exacerbated by disappointment and disillusion. There is an especially chilling portrait of the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island where the promise of the New World often ended before it began.

“I could not write back and tell her how strange and false everything was,” Dilly reflects. “Everything hinged on money, the paved street and the parts where the paving ran out and the pigs ran wild.”

And the anguish of Bridget is bitterly recalled in the letters from Dilly years later as a mother dying in Dublin, reaching across the years to Eleanora, her estranged daughter in London: “Letters heady and headlong, forgiving and unforgiving, in a series of velveteen bottles in which there had been bottles of toilet water or talcum powder.”

In a characteristic maternal collision of gratitude and resentment, there are requests for a “copper bracelet for rheumatism” and a complaint that a “beautiful coat” sent as a gift “has one defective skin in the back.”

In between begging for visits from her child, Dilly reports, “With the last money you sent me, I’m going to buy myself a rocking chair and rock away for the remainder of my life.”

A note is sounded that may well reflect reaction to Ms. O’Brien’s own prolific and often critical writings of her native land as Dilly comments on criticism at home of her daughter’s books for presenting “a false and malevolent picture of your country.”

Warning of threats of legal action against Eleanora, Dilly observes with more than a touch of malice, “You father and I do not discuss it as I feel it hurts him too. I have heard indirectly that you were seen crying in public. I hope it does not bode some fresh disaster.”

There is no doubt that the daughter is a reflection of the mother and therein lies much of their conflict. Both fled their beloved Ireland. Dilly coped with the life of a poverty-stricken immigrant afflicted not only by the callousness of the New World but by her abandonment by the man whom she was to marry, eventually returning to wed without enthusiasm and raise her family on an estate in Ireland. But the marriage is not happy, especially since her husband bitterly opposes her writing.

When Eleanora flees to London to avoid scandal, the void between mother and child widens and deepens, yet the links between them hold. The emotional ties transcend the pain of maintaining a connection that will have a familiar ring to mothers and daughters struggling with similar situations everywhere. The fact that Ms. O’Brien’s characters are Irish merely brings their turbulence to a boil.

Characteristically, she ends the book on a note of dark irony. And since her setting is Ireland, what else could it be?

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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