Houghton Mifflin Company, $24, 259 pp.
Born in 1936 on a farm in rural Ireland, Edna O’Brien married at sixteen and fled to London, where she has lived ever since. Like James Joyce, whose biography she has written for the Penguin Lives series, she speaks of writing as a calling that forced her to live in self-imposed exile-but Ireland remained the muse, as it did for Joyce. O’Brien returns in novel after novel to the source-the melancholic spirit, hard-bitten loyalties, and enduring hostilities. Her work has caused Joycean controversy back home, too, where her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), was banned, her parish priest gathering copies and staging a bonfire.
The London Sunday Times has called O’Brien "the most disturbingly intense and intimate of writers." Indefatigably lyrical, she is Joyce’s direct literary descendant. "I believe," she has said, "that all prose should have the rhythm of poetry." And so it does stunningly in Wild Decembers. The novel is a dirge that keens and lulls by turns. The entrancing rhythms and refrains, the density and chant-like, drumming fragmentation work on the reader like music, right from the very first sentences: "Cloontha it is called-a locality within the bending of an arm. A few scattered houses, the old fort, lime-dank and jabbery and from the great whooshing belly of the lake between grassland and callow land a road, sluicing the little fortresses of ash and elder, a crooked road to the mouth of the...