In literature, the wilderness often symbolizes anarchy, a lawless
zone right outside our door. Think of Nathaniel Hawthorne and poor
Young Goodman Brown, searching for his young wife in the dark New
IN THE FOREST, Edna O'Brien's new novel, also features a young
woman lost in the woods. Eily Ryan and her four-year-old son Maddy
move to the small Irish town of Cloosh and take up residence in a
cottage on the edge of the forest. Unbeknownst to the isolated
mother and son, the Kinderschreck lurks among the trees and watches
them in secret.
The Kinderschreck --- meaning one who frightens children --- is
Michen O'Kane, a psychologically disturbed young criminal who has
returned to Cloosh, his hometown, after stays in a series of jails
and institutions. Receiving no welcome from his family, he lives in
the forest, begging and stealing to survive. In these dire
circumstances, his criminal tendencies quickly escalate.
Eventually, he abducts Eily and Maddy and murders them deep in the
forest. Then he lures a priest to the same spot under the pretense
of last rites and kills him as well.
Motherhood is an important element of the story. Mich O'Kane
believes his only friend in the world was his mother, who died when
he was 10. He is fascinated by Eily and her son, who live in a
remote cottage away from the world, just as Mich always dreamed of
doing with his own lost mother. Unfortunately, his fascination
sours; why should they have the happiness he was denied? There is
no room for him in this world of two, so he annihilates it. He
kills Eily and he kills Maddy too, for what, in Mich O'Kane's view,
is a boy without his mother?
IN THE FOREST is the story of a community's failure. Deeply
troubled from a young age, Mich O'Kane receives no help from his
family or the authorities who keep him during his teen years. No
one could stop him from becoming a monster, just as no one could
protect the Ryans from falling prey to him. Eily is beautiful,
talented, a much-loved teacher at the local school, yet she has no
one to turn to. The locals even point to her "bohemian" ways to
explain her sudden, mysterious disappearance.
Each chapter in this novel is told from a different point of view.
This technique might prove confusing in the hands of a less
accomplished author, but Ms. O'Brien has such a sure grasp of her
characters that it is always clear who is speaking and why. This
multitude of voices adds to the book's sense of community. This is
not just the story of killer and victim, but of the town that
shaped them and informed their sad destinies.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 22, 2011
In the Forest