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  • Outside History:Edna O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation
  • Michael Harris

Edna O'Brien is not a name one often hears in discussions of postmodernism. Nevertheless, her 1995 novel House of Splendid Isolation, which some reviewers have described as a new departure for O'Brien, contains postmodernist elements.1 For instance, the novel resembles a pastiche in its almost random juxtaposition of diary entries, snippets of poems, a children's fable, Irish mythology, a 1921 IRA volunteer's journal, and personal notes included without any introduction, interspersed throughout its short, staccato sections of narrative.2 These italicized insertions make it difficult to fit the story within the framework of a known history, a defamilarizing strategy often employed in postmodernist fiction. The narrative itself proceeds in an achronological way through fragmented bits and pieces that the reader must fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

This fragmented style, which reminds one of the crosscutting technique in contemporary cinema and television, makes House of Splendid Isolation at times confusing. The novel opens with a short section titled "The Child," in which an initially unidentifiable voice speaks prophetically, as if from the grave. The following section titled "The Present" begins by describing the Northern Irish IRA gunman McGreevy hiding under a tree as he is pursued by a police helicopter. Then we meet the Irish garda officer Rory Purcell who is presented in a domestic scene with his wife, son, and daughter. The Purcells are watching a [End Page 111] televised newscast about a so–called "escaped terrorist" that turns out to be McGreevy. Subsequent sections follow McGreevy as he makes his way south to relocate in the Irish Republic in the vicinity of the isolated home of Josie O'Meara, an elderly woman who has returned home to die after contracting pneumonia. In the 170 pages that follow, Purcell is mentioned again only once, before reappearing in the novel's final pages with fellow Gardaí in pursuit of McGreevy.

House of Splendid Isolation obviously concerns more than an extended chase scene in which the good guys bring a terrorist to justice. O'Brien turns that cliché on its head, rendering what Christine St. Peter has called "the most sympathetic treatment of an IRA character in [Irish] women's fiction."3 The real interest of the story becomes the exploration of two lonely, isolated people—McGreevy and Josie O'Meara—as the narrator tries to understand them by tracing where they have been. What the reader discovers is that these two are each the product of a place—Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, respectively—and that they are fated, if not cursed, to act out the parts assigned to them based on their locales of origin. Thus, another of the novel's postmodernist elements is that emphasizes the spatial rather than the temporal. Fredric Jameson, for instance, has asserted that we now "inhabit the synchronic rather than the diachronic . . . our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism proper."4 Time—for instance, the difference in the two main subjects' ages—is less important here than the setting and the subjects' point of origin. O'Brien uses the past to help explain McGreevy's and O'Meara's present, but she also consistently critiques history as a crude and static straitjacket imposed on the complex dynamism of life. Although Jameson criticizes postmodernism for ignoring history, in House of Splendid Isolation O'Brien tries to open up the present to new possibility—perhaps even a peaceful resolution to conflict—by calling into question conventional modes of understanding human history and life.

Heather Ingman has said, "If there is a lesson in House of Splendid Isolation, it is that history should be laid to rest."5 The characters in O'Brien's novel seem inhibited and haunted by the ghosts of history from doing what they truly want to do and becoming the people they wish to become. For instance, Josie's [End Page 112] late husband James hears ghostly chains on the stairs in their house at night. The narrator calls...


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