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Saints and Sinners, by Edna O’Brien, Faber, RRP £12.99, 250 pages

Modern advertising appropriates concepts of sainthood and sinfulness to sell us diets. In the Catholic theology of Edna O’Brien’s Irish background, however, the categories of saint and sinner retain a precise relevance: we are all of us born sinners, stained with original sin, simply by virtue of entering the world as human beings. Women have traditionally borne the blame for this sad state of affairs, because women give birth. Eve’s sin was intellectual curiosity: finding out that sex and death were linked.

O’Brien’s new collection of stories, Saints and Sinners, features plenty of sex, plenty of people who are all very much alive, living bravely in the face of death. Her protagonists are wonderfully flawed and vulnerable. She writes about l’homme moyen sensuel: “moyen” meaning middling, earthly, that’s to say in between heaven and hell. La femme moyenne sensuelle too, of course.

Her earliest novels explored female rakes’ progress from innocence to experience. On one level she can seem merely to offer lyrical images of women’s suffering. On another, she creates a subtly feminist point of view that challenges a male-ruled world. This complexity and ambivalence gives her work great depth and charge.

O’Brien began her career before the new wave of feminism in the late 1960s, which so energised Irish women writers. Born in 1930, she studied in Dublin and, in 1959, moved to London. Her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), drew on her experience of convent school in Galway, and invoked the ancient trope of rurally bred innocents moving to the big bad city. Her depiction of the two tearaways, Kate and Baba, made her famous. Two later novels, The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964), completed a trilogy exploring women’s sentimental ignorance, their often brutal initiation into male ideas of sex and marriage. O’Brien’s criticism of female romanticism and male domination, coupled with her earthy honesty about desire, got her novels banned in Ireland for being pornographic. A misogynistic church could only damn her as a sinner.

Undaunted, she went on to write more novels, plays and screenplays, and to become one of the most highly regarded writers of our time. This new collection, brimming with energy, displays her characteristic tenderness, now angled towards the act and art of memory.

A crucial part of our imagination, memory recreates childhood, home, mother. Each of us can become Adam or Eve, remembering the loss of paradise. Many of O’Brien’s new stories invoke myth in this way. They seem set in an Ireland of long ago. Pans of cream settle in pantries. Girls wear knitted frocks scalloped with angora. Mothers bake and crosspatch fathers are anxiously waited on with cups of tea. Moments of individual change indicate the crushing progress of larger histories.

The opening story, “Shovel Kings”, is narrated by an unnamed woman who meets a white-haired Irishman, Rafferty, in a pub in London’s Camden Town, on Saint Patrick’s night. He describes his youth: exiled to England to join his father slaving on building sites. The Brits despise the Paddies, condemn the drinking and violence that accompany the latter’s degrading working conditions. To the clichés, Rafferty adds his knowledge of male camaraderie, kindness, playfulness: on Shrove Tuesday the builders use a shovel for a frying-pan and triumphantly serve pancakes. Returning home, Rafferty finds Ireland horribly altered: the vegetable plot is replanted with ornamental shrubs, the minicab driver gabbles into his mobile rather than chatting, and in the pub “it was noisy and brash, young people coming and going, no quiet corner to brood in, and no one had any interest in his stories”.

O’Brien adds resonance by showing her narrator carefully remembering Rafferty’s words.

The imagination, in this sense of magical preserving fluid, magic potion, is the key element. The narrator of “Sinners”, a lonely boarding-house keeper, makes up a whole pornographic story about three of her guests, as she hears footsteps creep across the corridor, a bed creak, voices cry out. In “Madame Cassandra”, the eponymous fortune-telling interlocutor is absent: her waiting client sits on the steps of the gaily-painted caravan, rehearsing her account, and so we manage to overhear it.

Imagination can be a frail power, however. In “Black Flower”, the artist Mona is unable to sustain her dream of friendship with an ex-convict when ancient enmities bloodily re-erupt. In “Green Georgette”, two sweet country women, visiting a new neighbour, find that the class divide cannot be crossed. In “Send My Roots Rain”, a librarian, stood up by a famous male poet, can only console herself with bittersweet memory and fantasy. In “Plunder”, which tells of soldiers sexualising their violence, the narrator discovers that the only thing left to her after being gang-raped is her decision to remember and to bear witness.

So who are the eponymous saints? Who are the new Adam and Eve? O’Brien’s compassionate, mesmerising tales exhilaratingly refuse to spell that out.

Michèle Roberts is the author of ‘Mud: Stories of Sex and Love’ (Virago)

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