Thursday, December 23, 2010
Book Review - In the Forest by Edna O'Brien
Several years ago, when I was first introduced to the work of the great Irish writer, Edna O’Brien, I immediately fell in love with the savage and poetic “word pictures” she paints. Her writing never fails to draw me in, emotionally and intellectually, on the very first page, and it really never lets me go. Edna O’Brien’s writing is writing that stays with me - resonating, enchanting, mesmerizing - long after I’ve read the final page.
O’Brien’s novel, In the Forest, is based on a true story that took place in County Clare, Ireland in 1994, during which a deranged local boy killed a young mother, her son and a local priest who had befriended them.
O’Brien sets the tone of her book with the very first words of her lush, incandescent, almost indescribably Joycean prose:
Woodland straddling two counties and several townlands, a drowsy corpus of green, broken only where the odd pine has struck up on its own, spindly, freakish, the stray twigs on either side branched, cruciform-wise. In the interior the trapped wind gives off the rustle of a distant sea and the tall slender trunks of the spruces are so close together that the barks are a sable-brown, the light becoming darker and darker into the chamber of non-light. At the farthest entrance under the sweep of a brooding mountain there is a wooden hut choked with briars and brambles where a dead goat decomposed and stank during those frantic, suspended, and sorrowing days. It was then the wood lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people.
This is Cloosh Wood, a place of horror and sorrow, of death and decay, for O’Brien lets us know the body of “a dead woman” lies in Cloosh Wood, undiscovered, decomposing. This woman is Eily Ryan, a wild, beautiful, vagabond. A woman whose very innocence and naïveté may have contributed to her own murder, for Eily sees no evil in Cloosh Wood:
I would come here for the mornings alone. Everything fresh, sparkling, the fields washed after rain, the whole world washed. Daisies and clover and blue borrage springing up, and the young cattle on the other side of the fence, frisking, kicking their hind legs and their tails, as if they have taken leave of their senses. The apple and crab-apple trees are coming into flower, apparitions of white, cloaked in green.
O’Brien has chosen to tell her story in one long flashback, broken up into named chapters, so even though we know from page one that Eily, her son, Maddy, and Father John Fitzgerald are going to be murdered, we don’t yet know the circumstances under which these murders will occur and, this “need to know” suffuses O’Brien’s narrative with urgency and suspense, and not least of all, horror. Make no mistake, In the Forest is about as dark and brooding as a book can get.
Just as O’Brien introduces us to Eily in the book’s opening pages, she also wastes no time introducing us to Eily’s killer, a youth she fittingly calls, with more than a nod to the Book of Genesis, Michen O’Kane, dubbed “the Kinderschreck” by a German man from whom he stole a gun at the tender age of ten:
The Kinderschreck. That’s what the German man called him when he stole the gun. Before that he was Michen, after a saint, and then Mich, his mother’s pet, and then Boy, when he went to the place, and then Child, when Father Damien had him helping with the flowers and the cruets in the sacristy, and then K, short for O’Kane, when his hoodlum times began.
In the Forest achieves even greater intensity as it follows Michen O’Kane from his genesis as the apple of his mother’s eye to his horrifying, though not surprising, descent into madness. And threaded through O’Brien’s remarkable and seamless narrative are the voices of the townspeople, the villagers, people who passively refuse to help Eily recognize the danger she’s courting during her exchanges with Michen O’Kane. Michen, monster though he’s become is, after all, “one of them,” while Eily, though filled-to-overflowing with a sweetness born only of lack of familiarity with the evil of the world, is a stranger, a gypsy, a “Johnny-come-lately,” who now occupies Michen’s dilapidated former home in this closed and clannish community. O’Kane, the townspeople rationalize, is “one of their own sons come out of the their soil, their own flesh and blood, gone amok.” The townspeople are loathe to punish O’Kane, lest they see their own hand in the formation of evil. “Deep down we believe (O’Kane) has been sent by God, as punishment against us.” Michen O’Kane, though he was a psychotic killer with no sense of right or wrong, was one of theirs. Eily Ryan, though good - some would say too good - was not. O’Brien describes it like this:
The sun broke into the showers and lit them with a rainbowed radiance, and the showers carried on, festive, larky, bluing the road and spattering watery diamonds on the plastic bags around the silage and on the top bars of iron gateways. The sky was pink and lilac and powder blue; stone walls and patchwork fields, then more ragged undulating country, hazels, poplars, forts of oaks, hilly mounds. O’Kane country.
It might be O’Kane country, but Cloosh Wood, at least, after the murders, had changed:
The same woods, that filtered green, the constant leafy murmur, and yet not the same, no longer the harmless place it once was, marked now as a human can be marked by its violation, its wood memory, the habitation of their frightful pilgrimage, their hapless cries; three bodies soon to be wrapped in plastic and brought down to the waiting hearses.
O’Brien is truly a literary daughter of Joyce and of Faulkner, a descendant of whom both Joyce and Faulkner would be most proud. Her pure stream-of-consciousness prose is lyrical, tragic, bleak, soaring, poetic, seamless, transcendent. She transports her reader from the printed page to Cloosh Wood, itself. This is a book I loved to read for the language alone, as much as for O’Brien’s insight into what might have actually taken place in County Clare. Although In the Forest is breathtakingly and gracefully told, it is a book that is unremittingly bleak and never flinches from its look straight into the face of evil.
Although Edna O’Brien hasn’t lived in Ireland for years, her soul, as is quite obvious from a reading of In the Forest, remains Irish to its core. Living in self-imposed exile in London, O’Brien, herself, has said, “Irish? In truth I would not want to be anything else.” Despite this, O’Brien refuses to sugar-coat her country’s sins, though she does understand why her countrymen may seem to turn a blind eye. The murders in Cloosh Wood, says O’Brien “...had opened wounds that were too deep, too shocking, too hurtful; it had been a human hemorrhaging and the country was depleted from it.”
As for Eily Ryan and her child, and Father John, as well as Michen O’Kane, “Magic,” writes Edna O’Brien, at the end of In the Forest “follows only the few.”
Recommended: To those who love highly literary fiction and can tolerate stream-of-consciousness prose and a slow paced narrative. This is a lyrically and breathtakingly gorgeous book, but it’s also bleak, and it never flinches in its look straight into the face of madness.