‘Old Wounds’ by Edna O’Brien

This beautifully layered story, which opens back to the narrator’s great-grandparents, and her own immediate family, compresses themes of love, passion, family, fraught intent and the need to escape, which characterize much of Edna O’Brien’s fiction and is shown here to full effect. It could be said the story unfolds layers of time and emotion more fitting to a novel, but somehow, because of her skill, the story works completely. The thread through time is the narrator’s cousin, with whom she has had a close friendship. He is the anchor, but also the connector to other strands – the cause for the family breach in the first place, which is to do with his wife’s reaction to her mother-in-law. I love the fecundity of detail from the natural world, the examination of emotional dissonance, and the way the latent violence of the narrator’s father plays into the present.

First published in The New Yorker, June 2009, and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Saints and Sinners, Faber, 2011

‘The Creature’ by Edna O’Brien

“She was always referred to as The Creature by the townspeople, the dressmaker for whom she did buttonholing, the sacristan, who used to search for her in the pews on the dark winter evenings before locking up, and even the little girl Sally, for whom she wrote out the words of a famine song.” Look, I’m sorry about this. But I hope that the quality of the stories I’m talking about here, should you actually wish to read them for yourself, will justify my selection, and really, well, really that’s the only criterion, isn’t it? (Isn’t it . . . ?) This story by Edna O’Brien concerns the narrator herself (I think it’s herself) and her putting things right. Thank the Lord for people trying to put things right.

from A Scandalous Woman, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990