Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories, by Edna O’Brien

A reviewer recently wrote: “Edna O'Brien was the first Irish woman ever to have sex … the rest just had children.” There is some evidence of this, erm, groundbreaking achievement in A Scandalous Woman, her short story collection originally published in 1974. These eight stories are populated with women who discover both the joy and the anguish that sex can bring – via extramarital affairs, coupling out of wedlock, illegitimate children, and even sexual coercion – and do so in the shadow of the three pillars of oppression in their lives: Ireland, the Catholic Church and, I suppose, Men with a capital M.

For those of you who like short stories that come with a subtle undercurrent of hope, like you’d find in many of the works by Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore, this is not the collection for you. A Scandalous Woman is unapologetically bleak, with nearly all of the stories ending on a soul-crushing note. The last sentence from the title piece sums up the atmosphere of the entire collection: “…I thought ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder and a land of strange sacrificial women.”

To her credit, O’Brien is an incredibly lyrical writer and her descriptive powers in these pieces are almost always pitch perfect. I found myself, for example, pausing for quite some time to marvel over a simple description of wallpaper in the story “The House of My Dreams”. Her sentences teem with as much keen observation as they do with venom.

But more to the point: O’Brien has a cold-eyed and unflinching way of looking at the world as she knows it: the women of her generation (she was born in 1932) living in Ireland, and all the senseless suffering that such an existence can bring. In each one of these stories, she is committed to telling the truth as best as she sees it. She does not look away from the hard facts and difficult truths of her characters’ lives. And really, that’s the best that we can ask from an author.

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