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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 21. September 10, 1968

Books — Male consumptive


Male consumptive

Edna O'Brien wishes to impress, possess and intimidate the modern "married man". A pixie far from its haven, she wanders nocturnally like an evil dosage of farmyard brutality and beauty, seeking the fox of her delight.

To kill, even herself, with joy she fails (naturally) from the object of the title and cannot, "let go of him now, because if I did, all our happiness and my subsequent pain—I cannot vouch for his—will have been nothing, and nothing is a dreadful thing to hold on to."

Not the displaced political pilgrimmacing of McCarthy, nor sure-fire moral disemberments of Spark, nor the turgid social arras-climbing of Murdoch, Miss O'Brien remains the calmest, and openly funniest colleen alive. Some of her writing is still banned in Ireland, but she is, I feel, riding high among the squarlorly-lits in England at this moment.

These eight modestly long stories bring together for the first time her two distinct styles: a lyrical meno mosso of childhood randyness, and sardonic society dreaming. Some of them call out for the talents of Desmond Davis, Tushingham and Redgrave to really set them on fire. For the first time, since Sylvia Plath, anyway, I was reminded by a woman writer, Janet Frame. Not that it wasn't stimulating to be involved with a woman's words. It only seemed more incredible when sentences like the following, force your eye back into jerky repetition.

From Paradise: " 'Are you interested in Mary Queen of Scots?' a woman whose skin had a beguiling radiance, answered yes over-readily. It was possible that such a radiance was the result of constant supplies of male sperm." And: "They drank. They smoked. All 12 smokers tossing the butts on to the tiled roof that sloped towards the farm buildings. Summer lightning started up. It was random and quiet and faintly theatrical. It seemed to be something devised for their amusement."

Beautiful stuff. In "The Rug", we hear old age talking their well-worm cliches into unintelligibility, like Water-house and Hall, cruel and dirty, many years hence.

The strangulated joys of a young girl, stranded in an animal-excremented village for a semi-orgiastic food-wake, is a long story "Irish Revel". Full of the boozy humour and catholic grotesqueries that Flann O'Brien (surely a relation?) patented in his similar novel. The Hard Life. The stewpid colourful girls of Mrs Roger's Commercial Hotel, especially Eithne Duggan and her hair, "dyed blonde that stood out, all frizzed and alarming. She reminded Mary of a moulting hen about to attempt flight". And later on when they were all bedded down drunk, she warns Doris who's desperate for the lav, "if anyone uses that pot I'm not going to sleep here."

In her two earlier novels, August is a Wicked Month and Casualties of Peace, Miss O'Brien nearly shocked.

Using illicit rampaging prose, pathetic symbols in her sex-hungry conquests, she is always funny in a selfdoubting sort of way. She writes now, it seems, more autobiographically, or has to. The "Love Object" story of a nearly-person relationship is shudderingly too obvious in its home journal horse playing.

Out of the reach of her male, there is a baby-soft raspberry blowing somewhere inside Edna O'Brien's pretty head.

Edna O'Brien: The Love Object. Cape, London. 189pp. $2.60. Reviewed by Michael Heath.