Review: Saints and Sinners, by Edna O’Brien

saintsandsinnersEdna O’Brien is an award-winning Irish writer of novels, plays, poetry, short stories, and biographies. Saints and Sinners is her 8th short story collection, and after it’s release in 2011, it won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. It contains 11 stories, of about 10-30 pages each.

O’Brien is a versatile writer: she utilises a number of different styles, and she effortlessly adopts the narrative voice of a variety of characters. Her protagonists are young, old; male, female; rich, poor. Their stories are told as a series of diary entries as in “Green Georgette”, or as a rambling monologue as in “Madame Cassandra”. She uses first- and third-person views with equal skill. “Shovel Kings” uses a nice trick of a shifting first-person point-of-view, starting with the unnamed narrator’s, then slowly changing to Rafferty’s as he tells his life’s story.

There’s a certain timelessness to these stories. Except for the odd mention of a mobile phone, they could exist anywhere between the mid 20th century and our current age. The primary form of long-distance communication is still the letter. Contrasted with a vagueness of the time, the place is concrete: unless stated otherwise, it is rural Ireland. (Other settings are London and New York, two cities with large a Irish diaspora.) This is the Ireland of O’Brien’s childhood, most likely: slow to change, lacking any sort of novelty, and with an undercurrent of repression. Oddly enough, there are almost no explicit explorations of religion. Perhaps it was simply before many of the churches practices began to be questioned. Though it’s not clear what her opinions of Ireland then and now are, it is clear that she has a complex relationship with her place of birth.

Reading the title, we might be tempted to label the characters as either saints or sinners. But of course, people, morals, and life itself are a bit more complicated than that. Other than the plundering soldiers and maybe the greedy McSorley, there are no villains in these stories. Nor are there heroes, really. Like real people, they are mix of the good and the bad, and they endure life as best they can. The almost-eponymous story “Sinners” is an interesting take on a morally grey area. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that, by the end of it, we are left wondering if Delia’s reaction to what the other characters did was because of her firm morals, or because of her own suppressed desires:

She had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give and take that is life. She had even forgotten her own sins.

There is a deep loneliness in many of the characters. They have lived lives of struggle and want, or they’ve lost love, or been left behind. In reaction to their trials, they’ve hardened their hearts to others to protect themselves. We feel deeply for them all because of O’Brien’s ability to create characters so effectively in so few words. The beautiful “Manhattan Melody” tells the story of an “other woman”, who wanders the streets of New York after being abandoned by her lover, who has returned to his wife. While she walks, she remembers all the little encounters they had, the glances across the room, the post-party embraces, and wonders if she was nothing more than a fling to him, him who she loves. “Old Wounds” is about two estranged cousins who become reacquainted after many years. They come to value each other deeply, until a minor, almost inconsequential incident causes a rift to form once again. Relationships are difficult to make, and even more difficult to keep.

Recommended for people who enjoy: slow/melancholy stories, lovely prose, wistfulness, introspection.


Review: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

220px-hauntingofhillhousePublished in 1959, “The Haunting of Hill House” is considered to be one of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century. It has a fairly standard set-up: a professor, Dr. John Montague, is moving into Hill House for a few months to study any potential supernatural occurrences. He enlists the help of three people: Eleanor Vance, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson. They are all strangers, but they get along well, and after overcoming the initial revulsion caused by the house, they quickly settle into a comfortable routine, at times even seeming like a sort of family. The doctor tells the story of Hill House and explains why he brought them here. As the days go by (or is it weeks, or months? time seems to not exist here), strange things begin to happen, and the insidious terror of Hill House begins to take hold.

This novel could be said to be a “self-aware” ghost story: Jackson is conscious of many of the tropes of genre and uses them as a way of examining the ghost story from a modern perspective. It is presumably set in the 1950s, when belief in the supernatural was low and faith in reason and science prevailed. Mrs. Montague and Arthur, two characters who arrive later in the book and who are something of a psychic duo, are comic characters: we are meant to laugh at them and their unwavering belief in ghosts and the netherworld. The other characters themselves laugh at them, even after their own experiences in Hill House. Much of the horror they feel comes from being confronted with things that they cannot explain. As Dr. Montague puts it, modern minds have “abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defence” (against the terror of the unknown). But then he also seems to contradict himself when he says that “fear is the relinquishment of logic […] of reasonable patterns”. They are trapped between what their reason says–that there are no such thing as ghosts–and what all their senses are telling them–that this house is haunted.

There’s something odd about how the characters act, I think. They seem to get on a bit too well. There’s a hint of superficiality about their interactions, like they’re only pretending to get along. During conversations, they constantly make quips and jokes, as if they are trying to distract from some underlying tension that pervades everything. All feel the same way: something is going to happen soon. When something does happen, it is like pressure had been let off; they feel giddy with it. But it’s only a temporary respite. As the plot progresses, cracks begin to appear in the veneer of friendliness. Eleanor begins to feel more and more that she’s making a fool of herself, that Luke and Theo are talking about her behind her back and deliberately excluding her.

Much of the novel is focussed on exploring Eleanor’s state of mind and how she interacts with the others. Though it is told in 3rd person, the narration frequently switches to a 1st person view of her thoughts: in order to draw us into her mind to see and feel as she does. As increasingly terrifying supernatural things occur, and Eleanor’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, we are left wondering just how many of the events actually happened and how many are just figments of her overworked mind. Since all we know of what happened is filtered through Eleanor, we cannot separate the objective series of events from her subjective experience. On top of this, we don’t know if her behaviour was caused by spirits or some form of madness. There may not have been any ghosts at all in the house. (The actions of the other characters contradict this, but it is interesting to consider.) What is certain is that there was some element of the imaginary involved. As Jackson herself says: “No live organism can exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream”.

Recommended for those who enjoy: ghost stories, slow-building/atmospheric horror, hallucinatory happenings, dark humour.