Daily Archives: May 28, 2010

‘House of Splendid Isolation’ by Edna O’Brien

1994,  216 p.

Oh dear, oh dear.  I don’t know if I understood this book.

History is everywhere.  It seeps into the soil, the sub-soil.  Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood.  A house remembers.  An outhouse remembers.  A people ruminate.  The tale differs with the teller.

From these opening words, this seems like a book I’d really enjoy.  It is set in the Irish countryside- 1970s maybe? – where an elderly widow Josie O’Meara lives alone in her increasingly decrepit old house.  Her solitude is invaded by McGreevy, an IRA gunman on the run, who hides there.  I suppose that you could say he has taken her hostage, but it doesn’t feel that way as they co-exist in the house and eventually draw closer to each other.

The book is told with sharp, cut-away snippets told from multiple perspectives.  The narrative slows down when Josie recalls her unhappy marriage to one of two brothers, who brings her to live in the family home.  It is a violent marriage that drags itself along in unhappiness.  Her life is brightened by the arrival of a handsome young priest, but he leaves.  When McGreevy arrives, it’s as if she has been enlivened again by his masculinity, which is wound up into her delusion and confusion.

A book about the IRA is political by its nature, but Josie is not an IRA sympathizer. It  is more that she, and the other villagers around her, are tired of the killing.  Indeed, it is the Garda, lying in wait for McGreevy who seem the more brutal.

But all of this is gleaned in snatches, and the reader has to work very hard to string together the narrative in this book.  Rather too hard, I think.  I closed the book with a “What???” at the end, completely bewildered by the last pages.  I still am none the wiser.