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Edna O’Brien, prolific and controversial, has been the subject of many glossy magazine interviews but of few full-length scholarly studies. Three notable exceptions were Grace Eckley’s 1974 monograph, Bernice Schrank’s 1996 special edition of the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, and Amanda Greenwood’s 2003 monograph. Now a new volume of essays fills this gap. Laing, Mooney, and O’Connor have assembled twelve essays, many from the April 2005 conference at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Another volume, edited by O’Connor and Lisa Colletta, appeared from the University of Wisconsin Press [End Page 146] in 2006. These two volumes indicate the growing body of scholars who are now challenging “existing hostile and repetitive readings of her work.”
Edna O’Brien: New Critical Perspectives opens with Rebecca Pelan’s excellent “Reflections on a Connemara Dietrich.” Pelan castigates the “otherwise astute” critic Fintan O’Toole’s criticism of three of O’Brien’s novels for—among other things—failing to notice that for years Edna O’Brien has “consistently cast a forensic eye on the most private aspects of... Irish life in order to show that the distinction between the private and public realm is a false one.” Pelan posits that O’Toole and others miss what O’Brien is precisely concerned with; as “one of the most commercially successful writers,” O’Brien is seldom taken seriously for her writing but assessed on her looks and behavior.
The next essay, by co-editor Maureen O’Connor, “Edna O’Brien, Irish Dandy,” also cites Richard Holmes’s review, “A Connemara Dietrich,” but differs in perspective. Instead of cautioning critics to limit themselves to assessments of O’Brien’s writing rather than her manners, in direct counterpoint to Pelan, O’Connor explains the enduring attraction of the “dandy” throughout history and views it as an asset for O’Brien to use. The editorial decision to place O’Connor’s essay directly after Pelan demonstrates the controversial nature of, and mixed responses to, O’Brien’s still-alluring personality. O’Connor concludes that by accentuating her Irishness “as a way of marginalizing her,” critics are really only following her instructions; O’Brien “cannily manipulates her Irishness to place herself at both periphery and centre, to play the roles of insider and outsider with seemingly effortless style.” These two essays provide a provocative opening to play off each other, though the suspicion lingers that these scholars are, in a way, doing exactly what they accuse others of: paying more attention to the persona than the writing.
Michelle Woods, in “Red, UnRead, and Edna: Ernest Gebler and Edna O’Brien,” explores the author’s famous marriage from a new angle. Woods analyzes two of Gebler’s novels in an effort to refute his claim that O’Brien copied his works and style. Surprisingly, Woods ends by suggesting a reassessment of Gebler’s work. Bertrand Cardin’s “Words Apart: Epigraphs in Edna O’Brien’s Novels,” takes a strikingly original approach. Cardin identifies and explores the relationship of eight epigraphs to their respective novels, concluding that “O’Brien’s systematic use of epigraphs, which borrows from other works on so large a scale, parodies parochialism and restricted, narrow-minded nationalism and the obscurest religious bigotry from which the author suffered so much.”
Eve Stoddard’s essay, “Sexuality, Nation and Land in the Postcolonial Novels of Edna O’Brien and Jamaica Kincaid,” does exactly what its title purports to do: compare the two novelists. Those well read in O’Brien will be disappointed that Stoddard looks at postcolonial concerns in only two novels, House [End Page 147] of Splendid Isolation (1994) and Wild Decembers (1999). Loredana Salis’s essay, “‘Caring Nothing for Sacrifice’: The Drama of Solitude in Edna O’Brien’s Iphigenia” calls for re-evaluation of O’Brien’s plays and themes: “The claim that her work is primarily female-centered (that is, anti-patriarchal) does little justice to this writer’s concern with universal issues...