Magazine article The Spectator

Dark, Moral and Lyrical

Magazine article The Spectator

Dark, Moral and Lyrical

Article excerpt

Saints and Sinners

by Edna O'Brien

Faber, £12.99, pp. 208,

ISBN 9780571270316

A story in Edna O'Brien's new collection - her 24th book since 1960 - shows us a mother and daughter who are thrilled to be taking tea with the Coughlans, posh new arrivals in their rural west of Ireland parish. But the afternoon is a washout: their haughty hostess has a neck rash and is too distracted for chit-chat. Trudging home, the girl suddenly craves tinned peaches. No, says her mother, 'it would be an extravagance';

perhaps another day. Regretting their lives - 'so drab, so uneventful' - the girl prays, wonderfully, for drastic things to occur - 'for the bullocks to rise up and mutiny, then gore one another, for my father to die in his sleep, for our school to catch fire, and for Mr Coughlan to take a pistol and shoot his wife, before shooting himself'.

To which the rest of the book says: careful what you wish for. One nightmarish piece sees a woman wake to find her home town invaded by a raping, pillaging militia.

Another violent tale concerns a painter's short-lived friendship with a convict whom she teaches art in prison. Because O'Brien doesn't immediately make it known that the prisoner is an IRA man with blood on his hands, the time we spend in his company can't help but make him a sympathetic figure when - freed from jail - he becomes a target for reprisals.

The creepy 'Sinners' pulls off a similar trick by cleaving to the tortured conscience of its central character, a landlady who can't sleep for what sounds like the gasps of her three most recent guests cavorting together in bed. …

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