Wednesday, October 14, 2015

My review of Edna O'Brien's The Light of Evening

Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s lovely, bittersweet 2006 novel The Light of Evening explores family ties, simple and yet complex. Through vignettes and letters, we get to know Dilly in her late seventies in her native Ireland, and her adult daughter Eleanora in both Ireland and England, and through flashbacks, Dilly as a young woman in New York City. Parents, siblings, spouses, children, roommates, bosses, lovers play roles through the decades, but the novel is about Dilly and Eleanora as mother Dilly faces a health threat.

Piecing together vignettes and letters from different eras in mother’s and daughter’s lives, we glimpse decades of Dilly’s unbroken, faithful devotion to her daughter. Counterpoint to Dilly’s attachment is Eleanora’s detachment. Although she generously, regularly sends her mother money, clothing, and household items, she keeps her distance from Rusheen, the family farm. Dilly’s letters to Eleanora reveal her heart and her life, which Eleanora does not appreciate as motherly love, and she does not share her life’s disappointments and unhappiness with her mother. In addition, romantic griefs of each woman could be studies in themselves—searching, settling, refusing to settle. Dilly’s hope for love becomes her daughter. Eleanora’s hope for love seems to have been buried long ago. Can Dilly’s illness change this dynamic?

I very much enjoyed Edna O’Brien’s colorful writing style. It is at once plain and poetic. (“… and the kiss that tasted of melted snow, but God the fire in it.” [page 6]) Descriptions and actions are economical. In the first twenty-four pages, I was thoroughly engaged in Dilly’s longing as O’Brien simply introduces plot, past, present, and future characters. One disadvantage of O’Brien’s economy, however, is many names mentioned but not expanded upon; as people in Dilly’s and Eleanora’s orbits, they were not central to the story.

The author’s portrayal of Irish immigrants coming to Ellis Island and working in New York City is vivid. Dialogue is lively and realistic. Plus, I have to like a book that uses two of my favorite archaic expressions: higgledy-piggledy and hidey-hole.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from The Light of Evening:
“What did I do wrong?” he [Dilly’s husband] kept asking, putting his cap on and off as he loitered. “Nothing, you did nothing wrong,” she answered, canceling the tribulation of years. [page 4]
“… she would have to go to Dublin for observation. Observation for what? As if she were a night sky.” [page 8]
Of Eleanora, who became a writer, the author says, “Her mother, abjuring the seaminess of the written word, and once, in an outburst, declaring that ‘paper never refused ink.’ Yet she was in bondage to both, doing her best to please both, dreading their strictures but smarting under them, an imposter carrying on her secret, subversive life. There was … her child self, not fully dead, not fully alive, waiting, through the alchemy of words, to crystallize into life.” [page 130]

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