Novelist Edna O'Brien....Making it through the night
Night Edna O'Brien Faber & Faber, pbk, £8.99, 300 pages
First published in 1972, this remarkable novella is told by a woman as she lies in bed recalling her life and her lovers, and it pays obvious homage to Molly Bloom's soliloquy in the 1922 masterpiece by James Joyce, one of Edna O'Brien's literary heroes.
Yet while it honours that extended reverie of half a century earlier, it also anticipates by 40 years another account of female consciousness, Eimear McBride's award-winning A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. However, O'Brien's almost forgotten book, now republished with an introduction by Andrew O'Hagan, is much more accessible to the ordinary reader than either its famous predecessor or its startling successor – while remaining just as challenging as both.
Its narrator is Mary Hooligan and the bed in which she lies belongs to a middle-class couple whose suburban English house she's negligently minding while they're journeying abroad. The bed in which she grew up, though, was in the west of Ireland townland of Coose (think of O'Brien's native Scariff), from whose stifling conformities she fled after her mother's death. We learn details of her background as she mulls over aspects of her past life, and we learn of her various sexual encounters, some blithely casual ("I don't particularly want him, except for his balls now and then"), some of them daringly transgressive, including two threesomes, but none of them proving to be fulfilling, especially a bizarre marriage, which was "not a blessed union", though it produced a son now travelling in exotic locations.
We learn, too, of her various jobs, including a stint in New York promoting the beauties of Coose, much as The Gathering was promoted four decades later: "My task", she says, "was to lure the unfortunate exiles back to the Old Bog Road". But that brief sojourn in Manhattan is mainly recalled as the occasion for yet another transitory sexual adventure, this time with a Mexican cab driver.
Looking back on her marriage, she reflects she, "forsook all that, the domestic bliss", and the "weapons" she used in her sexual encounters were "ludicrous, warm human flaps of flesh, in strips, brimming with blood". Still, she wouldn't have it otherwise: "The raptures make up for everything, even the doldrums". And yet, paradoxically, what she "craved" was, "to stay with someone... to have chats and unions in the evening".
Describing the book in this way makes it sound both linear and conventional, but linguistically it's a one-off, delightedly plundering language for all its possibilities and resonances – in the first 10 pages alone, you'll find such teasingly puzzling words as "vicinage", "rubify", "dunner", "gaimbeaux", "buggerotum", "glim", "flaunched", "seasous" and "stiffe". Many of these terms, as Andrew O'Hagan points out in his appreciative introduction, are drawn from Old Irish, modern Irish, Middle English, Jacobean English and Greek.
This, you feel, is a grateful nod to Joyce and to the linguistic freedoms he provided for the boundary-pushers who came after him. And while in some of her weaker novels, O'Brien's language can occasionally feel overwrought in its self-conscious striving for descriptive significance, here it's all of a piece with the narrator's shifting memories and her search for meaning in her own life. A more reader-friendly Molly Bloom, then and less daunting than McBride's astonishing novel, too. Though McBride's admirers will be struck by linguistic devices just as rhythmically distinctive, as in Mary's recollection of early sexual gropings: "You and I? You or I? Only you, not yet I? Already I, no longer you? A trinity of yobs. In Occidental damp and murk. What gave rise to your spasming? A full moon, a half moon, no moon at all, a touch of the madman's wisp, duty, reconciliation, thirst? Anything? The crab delights in soft and unguent places. Bucking maybe and pronouncing fiendish words such as bollocks or jackass or Oirre, upon her. Grunting. I wouldn't put it past you".
Unlike the younger author, O'Brien uses such truncations and elisions sparingly, but they're there all the same, confirming her as an outstanding literary inheritor and a pioneering figure for women writers intent on telling the truth about what it means to be a woman. This short masterpiece (not much longer than Molly's soliloquy), which has been out of print for years, is being reissued by Faber & Faber on August 17 alongside the paperback edition of The Love Object: Selected Stories, which has an introduction by John Banville. If you don't already have them, buy them both.