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The Light of Evening by Edna OBrien

Claudia Smith Brinson [McClatchy Newspapers]

This is a novel about feelings as much as events. You must be willing to immerse, to submerge.

The Light of Evening

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Length: 304
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $25.00
Author: Edna O'Brien
US publication date: 2006-10
UK publication date: 2006-09

Edna O'Brien's first novel, The Country Girls, was banned in Ireland, whose minister for culture called it "a smear on Irish womanhood." In O'Brien's home village, copies were burned on the grounds of the parish chapel.

Her next six works also were banned, but O'Brien has yet to stop: 19 novels, eight short-story collections, plus plays, poetry, nonfiction, children's books and a memoir. Different stories and different characters compel her, and draw us to her, but in all her writing are the conflicts of the heart and of home.

The Light of Evening swirls and hovers and lingers about the feelings of a mother and daughter for each other. We are hit with both the beauty and the agony of this love on the first page:

"Later as the day cools and they have gone in, the cry of the corncrake will carry across those same fields and over the lake to the blue-hazed mountain, such a lonely evening sound to it, like the lonely evening sound of the mothers, saying it is not our fault that we weep so, it is nature's fault that makes us first full, then empty."

Dilly has cancer and seems to be dying. Hospitalized in Dublin, she waits for her daughter Eleanora, a famous writer who lives in London, who loves and avoids her mother.

We're offered pieces of Dilly's life: her adventures in America, where she works as a maid in New York City, loves a man, observes the nouveau riche, then returns home to marry a hard-drinking horse trainer, to manage children and the deteriorating farm Rusheen.

We're offered pieces of Eleanora's life: her escape and her yearnings, which echo her mother's; her marriage to a controlling man; her affairs; her writing success; her unwillingness to accept her mother's love for fear it will smother her spirit.

And because we also know a little of Bridget, Dilly's mother, we see how mothers wrap their arms about, how children wriggle free, generation after generation.

O'Brien has talked about writing stories that fit her "inner gnaw," and much that she writes is autobiographical. This novel incorporates pieces of her own mother's letters, which are brilliant in their generosity and their neediness. And in the acknowledgments, O'Brien thanks a nun for the care of her mother and insights into "the journey of death."

So this novel is also an elegy, lovely as all of O'Brien's writing is, and racking as her writing often is.

Readers who want a linear plot will be disappointed. There is great drama in Dilly's ocean crossing, a false accusation of theft, a trick that breaks up a romance; there is great turmoil in Eleanora's struggle with her husband, her ups and downs in her affairs. But these moments come and go.

This is a novel about feelings as much as events. You must be willing to immerse, to submerge:

"For the rest of my life, long or short, I will be praying for you and yours and asking God to be always beside you, guiding you and counseling you. I am very sad, you will never know how much, but then we are not born for happiness."

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