The prolific Edna O'Brien's latest novel, THE LIGHT OF THE EVENING,
is --- like much of her work --- about place, loss and longing as
well as identity and misunderstanding. She acknowledges James Joyce
as a strong influence on her prose, and his voice is evident here;
this novel is mostly stream of consciousness and deals with
subjective memory, not to mention Ireland.
Dilly is dying of cancer, and as she moves toward the end of her
life, her mind and heart take her to her past. She remembers her
tense relationship with her mother and leaving her small Irish town
for America in the 1920s. There she works as a domestic and has a
quite typical immigrant experience (poetically and sensitively
rendered by O'Brien). She falls in love with a dashing, romantic
Irish-American only to have her dream of a life with him thwarted.
Dilly returns to Ireland and marries a solid man, prone to heavy
drinking, the heir of a crumbling but proud estate. She has two
children, a son and a daughter. And it is the relationship between
Dilly and her daughter Eleanora on which the book centers.
Dilly and Eleanora, like Dilly and her own mother, have a tense
relationship. Eleanora strains under the confines of rural Ireland
and longs to leave. She finally does and marries a foreign writer
in London, distancing herself from her mother and her Irish roots
even further. Eleanora becomes a famous writer herself and, after
divorcing her husband, engages in a series of disastrous affairs.
As Dilly spends her last days in a Catholic hospital tended to by
nuns, she waits for Eleanora to visit. In the meantime, she tells
much of her life story to a kind nun who seems convinced that
Eleanora's visit will bring reconciliation and closure. But the
visit proves tense, anti-climactic and sad. Eleanora flees and
leaves behind a journal recording her feelings about her mother,
which, of course, Dilly reads. Readers hear the voices of Dilly's
mother, Dilly and Eleanora though letters, first-person memories,
third-person narrative, and finally, Eleanora's raw and emotional
Surrounded by the nuns, but emotionally and physically far from her
family, Dilly's last days are full of longing and regret but also
Much of THE LIGHT OF THE EVENING seems autobiographical; O'Brien's
mother, like Dilly, did leave Ireland in the 1920s for New York
where she worked as a maid, and like Eleanora, O'Brien became a
controversial writer, reviled and treasured, in her homeland.
O'Brien's novel is at once hyper-emotional and stoic. It is a
lyrical and challenging exploration of place and the complicated,
not always pleasant, mother/daughter bond. Dilly and Eleanora need
each other but also repel each other. They consider themselves to
be very different yet their desires and feelings often mirror one
another. The men in the novel fall into neat stereotypes (the hero,
the drinker, the Irish-American dreamer) and are usually
one-dimensional. The women, however, are vivid and heartfelt
characters; they are complex, flawed and real. O'Brien successfully
weaves into the story the importance of folklore and Catholicism
for Irish identity, and in that way further cements her hard-earned
reputation as one of the most important contemporary Irish
THE LIGHT OF THE EVENING is perhaps not quite as readable or even
enjoyable as her recent IN THE FOREST. Nevertheless, it is a
wonderful novel --- brave and difficult, lovely and heartbreaking.
Readers have come to expect no less from O'Brien.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 30, 2010
The Light of Evening