Saturday, 16 March 2013

A Rose in the Heart of New York

A Rose in the Heart of New York - Edna O'Brien

March is Irish Short Story Month at The Reading Life. I have read a some O'Brien novels and enjoyed them. A copy of A Fanatic Heart, her selected stories has sat on my shelves for a few years. Time to take it down. This story is highlighted on the back cover so I thought I'd start by reading it.

I was primed to enjoy this story but still surprised by its power and intensity. It is emotionally devastating, a symphony composed of the perfectly observed minutae of pain and emptiness. It is the story of a daughter and her mother, of love, hatred, loneliness, frustration, sex, despair, desire, injustice, loss and death. It is a story of a harder Ireland, an often cruel country. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that it is only thirty pages long.
The story covers four decades and years, marriages, migrations and mouldering are so sharply brought to life in momentary flashes that you feel you have read at great length about them. The shape of the story bears a striking resemblance to the shape of O'Brien's early life and there is an electric charge running through much of the story that gives it gasping, breathing life.

The story opens with a birth, the birth of the narrator, details torn, you imagine from deep in her heart, from stories, memories, instinct and imagination. Also from the scars of grief and trauma, rubbing with their blind insistence against the thin epidermis that tries to grow over them.

The story has three main characters the mother, the daughter and the house they shared with a father who remains barely in focus in the mid distance. The rooms in the house have names and the first hint of the grief to come is contained in the description of a room: "The room with no furniture at all - save for the apples gathered in autumn - was called the Vacant Room." We are told that the apples have started to rot.

We are at a birth, and not an easy nor a desired one. "It was her fourth labour. The previous child had died two days after being born. An earlier child, also a daughter, had died of whooping cough. Her womb was sick unto death." I couldn't help feeling that the physical world being described was being pushed onto the page, the objects that witnessed the story are the waters of memory breaking. The story is that of mother and daughter in the full flow and desperate ebb of their love for each other. Here is the description of the birthing room: "It was a blue room - walls of dark wet morose blue, furniture made of walnut, including the bed on which the event was taking place. Fronting the fireplace was a huge lid of a chocolate box with the representation of a saucy-looking lady. The tassel of the blind kept bobbing against the frosted windowpane. There was a washstand, a basin and ewer off-white, with big roses splashed throughout the china itself, and a huge lumbering beast of a wardrobe."

The birth is described in rough physical details - "she coiled into a knot and felt the big urgent ball - that would be the head - as it pressed on the base of her bowels and battered at her insides." I felt that the story was heading towards death in childbirth. At times it is as if that is what the mother wants: "She would have pushed everything out of herself, her guts, her womb, her craw, her lights, her liver, but the centre of her body was holding on and this centre seemed to be the governor of her." And all this for what? "The result was a mewling piece of screwed-up, inert, dark purple misery."

But, as intense the physical pain is the love that grows between mother and daughter. O'Brien again and again finds powerful physical descriptions of how the characters interact. She shows how they mirror each other -   "The food was what united them, eating off the same plate, using the same spoon, watching one another's chews, feeling the food as it went down the other's neck." She uses this method again later but by then the first hint that the apples may have started to rot has appeared. "They cleaned the windows, one the inside, the other the outside, they sang duets, they put newspapers over the newly washed dark-red tiles so as to keep them safe from the muck and trampalations of the men. About everything they agreed, or almost everything."

The father largely appears as a dark shadow that sometimes falls over the mother, or between mother and daughter. Violence simmers away, barely controlled and sometimes hissing jets erupt. Through the window the young girl sees her father threaten her mother with an axe - she stands there, "hoping that the terrible scene would pass, that the ground would open up and swallow her father, that the hatchet would turn into a magic wand" Against her wishes the row grows worse and the row intensifies: "It was then he really got bucking, gritted his teeth and his muscles, said that he would split the head of her, and the mother said that if he did so there was a place for him. That place was the lunatic asylum. It was twenty or thirty miles away, a big gray edifice, men and women lumped in together, some in straitjackets, some in padded cells, some blindfolded because of having sacks thrown over their heads, some strapped across the chest to quell and impede them. Those who did not want to go there were dragged by relatives, or by means of rope, some being tied on to the end of a plow or harrow and brought in on all fours, like beasts of the earth."

I love the way O'Brien situates the story in the harsh realities of the time. Can we wonder that individuals were damaged and bitter and violent when the society in which they lived was such? At the time, Ireland had a higher proportion of her population in asylums than anywhere else.They were used to dispose of anyone who rocked the boat.

After the father has another outburst the mother and father go away for a while and the girl stays with neighbours. When she looks at her empty house it seems like something from the fairy tales (the Grimm  variety rather than the Disney)``: "To her it was like a kind of castle where strange things had happened and would go on happening. She loved it and she feared it."

When the mother return it is as if the bond has intensified: "Her mother was the cup, the cupboard, the sideboard with all the things in it, the tabernacle with God in it, the lake with the legends in it, the bog with the wishing well in it, the sea with the oysters and the corpses in it, her mother a gigantic sponge, a habitation in which she longed to sink and disappear forever and ever." When she is sent off to boarding school it is a huge betrayal and her attention shifts to a nun. Her love is semi reciprocated and they pass messages and gifts. They are discovered, though, and kept apart.

When she leaves school and goes to work in Dublin she has a relationship that consists of meeting up for tea, cakes and fumbled kisses at the gate. This is not enough to fill the gap left by her mother.  "But these orgies only increased her hunger, made it into something that could not be appeased."

She marries, against her mother's wishes, perhaps even because it is against her mother's wishes.  The marriage falls apart and she moves to London but however far she goes her mother and the house follow, in her memories at least: "She was staggered with the assaults of memory - a bowl with her mother's menstrual cloth soaking in it and her sacrilegious idea that if lit up it could resemble the heart of Christ,""the little box of rouge that almost asked to be licked, so dry and rosy was it, the black range whose temperature could be tested by just spitting on it and watching the immediate jig and trepidation of the spit..."

Like the spit dancing on the hot stove the characters are buffeted by the heat of their emotions - it is as if they were too close when the girl was young and nothing as intense can arise again. The story has a raw emotional heart which O'Brien renders physical and immediate. This is a story to which I will return again, mostly for the powerful, memorable way in which O'Brien maps the physical and emotional gulf that can grow between the people who need each other most, and on beyond the final unbridgeable gulf: "A new wall had arisen, stronger and sturdier than before. Their life together  and all those exchanges were like so many split feelings, and she looked to see some sign or hear some murmur. Instead, a silence filled the room, and there was a vaster silence beyond, as if the house itself had died or had been carefully put down to sleep."

*There is a nice reference to Joyce's famous panoramic passage in The Dead describing the central plains:
"Through Joyce's Ireland, as she always called it, and thought of the great central plain open to the elements, the teeming rain, the drifting snow, the winds that gave chapped faces to farmers and cattle dealers and croup to the young calves."

"Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914.


  1. I much admire O'Brien's vivid, slightly skewed observations. She certainly gets to the heart of things, particularly with family life. She sits high on my shelf between Hoffman, Tyler and Oates; strange filing system that I have.
    My mate's just had his first baby; still traumatized by the birth. I was going to venture a witty Winston Churchill comparison for 'George'.
    I'm now going for "a mewling piece of screwed-up, inert, dark purple misery."
    I'll keep you posted on the response...

    1. I don't expect to hear that you've been made godfather somehow...
      O'Brien is probably under appreciated, I think. Glad to hear she has a place in such good company on your shelves.

  2. I really need to read more Irish literature.

    This story sounds superb I like your point about damaged societies damaging individuals. It is also true that this stuff tends to follow people around no matter how far they go in life.