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 mountain."
O’Brien combines this lyricism with a masterly storytelling instinct, so that Wild Decembers reads at once like an intricate poem and a taut, suspenseful page-turner. The novel inhabits familiar O’Brien territory, a grim rural Ireland where territory itself reigns supreme, "fields that mean more than fields, more than life and more than death too." The story revolves around a triangle. Joseph and Breege Brennan are brother and sister living on a mountain in Cloontha, an isolated village, on a farm left them by their parents. They live for their land and for each other, Breege in an introverted way and Joseph insistently. Into their midst comes Mick Bugler, who has been away in New Zealand and has come to Cloontha to farm inherited land adjacent to the Brennans’, on what Joseph calls "my mountain." After a brief, doomed attempt at friendship, the two men, like their ancestors before them, feud over fields. Breege, despite fierce loyalty to her brother, falls in love with Bugler. Heartbreak and violence advance with grinding inevitability.
Indeed, the spool of the story unwinds as in Oedipus. No mortal actions can alter what fate has decreed, and no son can escape the sins of his father. Joseph himself loves the ancient Greeks-almost as helplessly as he loves his mountain, "the sacred fetters of land and blood." When Bugler, on his fancy tractor, stakes his claim on the mountain, Joseph can brook no trespass. For him, the past is every bit as vital and vivid as the present-the son of a past enemy must become a present enemy. Joseph is a man utterly possessed by history and its grievances, trapped, ready to mistrust at every turn.
Everyone in Wild Decembers is trapped: "The enemy is always there and these people know it." The villagers are a nasty lot, entertained by other people’s pain, consumed by gossip, and eager to pounce on the vulnerable. Nothing lighthearted comes this way. But O’Brien is far from humorless. Dark comic relief takes form in an ecstatic dinner dance where villagers let loose, thanks to two siren sisters-witchy seducers who have their way with men-and in a discussion in the village hair salon that reads like Eudora Welty, only bawdy.
Still, O’Brien’s eye is most often trained on turbulent sorrow, and her gaze is fearless. Each character is torn so many ways. Bugler wants his farm, wants Breege, must fight Joseph, must welcome his New Zealander fiancée. Breege can’t abandon either Joseph or her love for Bugler, facing violence on one side and humiliation on the other. Joseph loves his sister but risks complete destruction of their life together to satiate his hatred, his "useless and aping belligerence." These characters wage battle after battle, and O’Brien never simplifies their tangled, Byzantine motivations; she concentrates instead on evocative physical and emotional details. At the novel’s climax, when Joseph sets out to seek his revenge on Bugler, his fury driving him to commit a foul crime, he pauses to watch a mare and her new foal: "When he saw them so close together, his heart froze with a kind of agony at how outside everyone and everything he felt, an outcast in the world save for Breege, and he knew that by telling her that single shred of truth she would not desert him, and then in a headlong absence of reason he saw their lives return to normal, the pattern of the steady days as they had once been."
This ultimately murderous man just longs for the "pattern of the steady days," and, at that moment, more than anything, we wish it for him, too. Characters in Wild Decembers are petty, cruel, jealous, greedy, violent-and yet impossible to hate. O’Brien never mutes their meanness, but she knows it comes from hurt. When Breege’s love for Bugler lands her in an asylum, she encounters harrowing human suffering and wonders, "Is it the serpent. Is it that we love too much. Or is it that we don’t love at all." Questions come as statements, as if she knows they are unanswerable.
Breege and Bugler’s love for each other is itself a question without an answer. Happiness rarely enters in, and then only tinged by dread-Bugler, already engaged to a beautiful woman, has no reason to court trouble with the immensely shy sister of a man who hates him-and still, the very existence of Breege and Bugler’s love gives us hope. They are "flowers that are hatched in the snows," and O’Brien’s prose takes on a completely different feel when the two are alone together. At one moment, they stand and look at a river. "It came as if from afar, wild and vigorous and whizzing, then the sight of it so thrilling up there in the emptiness, a deep amethyst-colored, plashing river, clean and icy cold." In Wild Decembers, the story of their love is this river-it comes from afar. The hope it introduces is thrilling and clean.
"Life is not a placid pool," Edna O’Brien has said. "It’s a raging, storming sea, which we’re all in." Like Yeats’s Cuchulain, O’Brien battles with this sea-she has spent an impressive, prolific career fighting "with the invulnerable tide," and she shows no signs of growing weary from the effort.