Review: The Light of Evening by Edna O'Brien

Sarah Hughes finds Edna O'Brien's The Light of Evening to be a little too familiar

The Light of Evening by Edna O'Brien
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £14.99, pp224

In a Dublin hospital bed, Dilly lies and waits for visitors who will never come, both those she loves and those she despises. Her thoughts turn to her past, to Ellis Island and New York and her days as a 'kitchen canary' for a nouveau-riche family in Brooklyn.

It is 46 years since Edna O'Brien scandalised Ireland with her first novel, The Country Girls. Since then she has written over 20 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and gone from wild girl pariah to one of her homeland's most revered writers. Yet no matter how many novels O'Brien writes, you cannot help thinking that the tale remains the same. She has always been an intensely autobiographical (the cruel would say solipsistic) writer, and this fictionalising of the truth reaches new heights in The Light of Evening, as O'Brien presents us with two tales: that of her mother, who like Dilly travelled to Ellis Island and a new life only to return to Ireland, and that, once again, of herself - Dilly's daughter Eleanora is a glamorous red-headed writer who makes an unfortunate marriage to a dominating, foreign and much older man.

Hmm, haven't we been here before? We have, many times, and O'Brien's residual bitterness towards her, admittedly tyrannical, former husband Ernest Gebler seems disproportionate given that the man died in 1998. Though the plot remains stuck in the past, O'Brien has not lost her ability to sparkle, and the images of the family home, Rusheen, and the young Dilly's first awestruck impressions of New York and Brooklyn linger long in the memory.

This is primarily a novel of mothers and daughters, and the early portents are not good: on the boat to New York a young mother gives birth and, with no husband to support her and a new life to begin, decides to throw the child overboard. It is a moment of high gothic, an image startling in both its cruelty and pragmatism. Yet despite this heavy early shadowing, O'Brien's tale is a more familiar one of small betrayals and domestic disappointments, of the lies that daughters tell their mothers and of minor misunderstandings growing wider year by year.

Dilly announces early on: 'We were always at loggerheads, my mother and me both being very stubborn and strong-willed', and that dynamic is later echoed in her relationship with the equally wilful Eleanora, who constantly thinks of visiting her now sick mother yet seems unable to bring herself to do so. When that visit finally comes it is most notable for what is not said, for the sad silences between the two women as they consider what could have been.

There is much to admire in this book. Dilly's story is exuberantly told and the conclusion is heartbreaking. Yet there is also much to irritate. O'Brien teeters on the edge of self-parody and for every sensuous, illuminating passage there is a moment of teeth-aching sentimentality. Ultimately The Light of Evening is a sensitive and poetic tribute to the author's mother, but like the fiddlers who clog up Dublin's cheesier theme pubs you can't help but wish that occasionally O'Brien would change her tune.


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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