In this new collection of stories, Edna O'Brien, author of "The Country Girls" trilogy and many other works of fiction, rewards readers with brilliant prose, troubled characters and diverse tales. Each of these 11 stories uses language in a seemingly effortless manner to pull the reader's imagination deep into the heart of an absorbing narrative, with truly moving results.
Set in London, New York, Dublin, rural Ireland and elsewhere, these stories stir our emotions, make us fear the inevitable and create great sympathy for the men, women and children who inhabit them. In many, the characters tell us of their past, of events and people that have shaped their presence today.
Rafferty, who "seemed like a man on whom a permanent frost had settled," tells our narrator in "Shovel Kings" of his arrival in London 40 years previous at age 15, when he dug trenches with men from all over Ireland who needed work. His descriptions are drenched with worry, pain and sorrow: "One night in the bar (and here his voice grew solemn) I saw grown men cry."
"My Two Mothers" is about remembrances, a child's love affair with her mother: "But when she approved of something, everything seemed to soften and the gaze, intensely blue, was like seeing a stained-glass window melt." Her relationship evolves over the decades into something quite different, and she remembers later troubles while gazing at a bundle of letters from her mother: "It was like being plunged into the moiling seas of memory."
Few Irish writers, O'Brien included, avoid the drama and pain of The Troubles. In "Black Flower," she writes of the tragic results of retribution that evolved from a simple drive in the country in search of a good meal. The darkest of all stories is "Plunder," a terrifying tragedy of the ravages of war through the eyes of a child. Her mother, brother and sisters are taken, her father long gone -- and now she faces the violence directly: "Many and terrible are the roads to home."
Other stories are more internal, less brutal, including "Send My Roots Rain," another tale of memories, this from a librarian on her past loves while she awaits having tea with a famous poet in a Dublin hotel. More romantic recollections are the focus in "Manhattan Medley," on an affair with a married man which doesn't quite take shape: "Of all the things that can be said about love, the strangest is when it strikes."
The stories in "Saints and Sinners" reveal Edna O'Brien's astute command of language that dazzles us without distraction. Through her words, we witness her consideration and concern in a world that is painful and dangerous, but laced with elements of compassion. She reminds us that -- despite life being fragile, at times tragic and out of our control (" ... and we shall sit quietly, uncertain of what the future may hold.") -- it is a rich life we live, especially for those of us who read this fine collection.
- Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Oregon.