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.


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