Women Beware Women

A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories

by Edna O'Brien
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 461 pp., $17.95

Hotel du Lac

by Anita Brookner
Pantheon, 184 pp., $13.95

A Fanatic Heart is a collection drawn from over a decade of Edna O’Brien’s career as a writer of short stories; it prints complete her 1981 volume Returning, only now published in the United States, as well as a “Quartet” of uncollected stories which appeared in The New Yorker between 1979 and 1981.

The book opens with the Returning stories, set in Ireland during the Forties and Fifties. Exile, if it is voluntary (and therefore reversible) and doesn’t involve the abandonment of a language—and moving from Ireland to London, though a somber step, doesn’t quite involve that—can be a good thing for a writer. Exile produces a transformation of values that otherwise only maturity could accomplish: the commonplace becomes exotic, the trivial fascinating, and poverty becomes a source of richness. Even experience reverts to its opposite; the wildest renegades of these stories have an innocence unnoticed by the communities they scandalize.

The Ireland of Edna O’Brien’s stories is a country where in midsummer the milk sours five hours after it has been put in the tanker; where a child’s tapeworm can be talked about for a week; where a girl in love with the nun who teaches her geometry has to ask her what color her hair is, never having seen it under her wimple; and where people’s dream house is identical with their own (that is, a twostory cement building), except that it has a tiny hall inside the front door, so that company can be vetted there, “instead of plunging straight into the kitchen.”

Thresholds are jealously guarded; one woman has never set foot inside anyone else’s front door. “She always washed outdoors at the rain barrel, and never called her husband anything but mister. Unpacking the groceries, she said that it was a pity to waste them on him, and the only indulgence she permitted herself was to smell the things, especially the packet of raspberry and custard biscuits.” The same thresholds, though, can act as prison gates, and nonconformers pay dear. A family whose unmarried daughter is pregnant spends a whole day cleaning oats from the sitting room, giving the whole house a spring-cleaning, so as to have a suitable setting for the scene in which they will force the guilty man to do the decent thing.

The rules are strict. Women are meant for marriage and for nothing else; the local women wear no cosmetics, and the jars of cold cream and vanishing cream go dry on the chemist’s shelves for lack of demand. The women read about fashions in magazines, but style remains something applied to the outside of a woman, under which she is unchanged. A local vamp has “an attaché case full of style,” but she will need more than that to escape.

These stories reveal a particular sympathy for internal exiles, the casualties of convention, but at their best the stories themselves are impersonal. The central character is usually a young girl, but it is her best friend or sister…

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