Edna O’Brien’s gothic-like work is based on a true story of a triple murder that occurred in the western part of Ireland in 1994. Imelda Riney and her son Liam had been missing for a week, but there was only a lackadaisical effort to find her. It was only with the discovery of a priests body, that the search took on new meaning. When the bodies of mother and child were discovered on the eighth of May 1994, the search for missing persons was over, and the gathering of evidence took on a special meaning (the suspected murder was already in custody), even before any bodies had been found. He was, in the modern parlance, a “person of interest”.
These real life events, appalling and controversial, form the basis for Edna O’Brien’s dark, and horrific novel. The mother and child (here named Eily and Maddie Ryan) are the characters representing the real life people. The names were changed, but not much else. The novel adheres closely to the actual events. The man the locals always steered clear of (they called him the “kindersckreck”) is here named Michen O’Kane – the real life killer-psychotic was named Brendan O’Donnell.
O’Brien writes the story with suspense, not easy when the outcome is known in advance – it was a notorious case. At first, I had no sympathy for the murderer, even though his descent into psychotic episodes was palpable. It was with the penultimate chapter “Grotto”, that I reluctantly began to have some feeling, or at least understanding for O’Kane. The court appointed psychiatrist (Dr. Macready) gives some perspective on O’Kane’s condition, when he visits the place where the bodies were found.
He thought of him often, the ravelled mind that hopped around as if it were on a hot spit, running from hate to love, to murder to repentance, fantasy and truth all one. Once, in a moment of searing clarity, asking for his brain to be taken out and washed and then buried thousands of feet on some bog where neither man nor machine could dislodge it.
When senseless acts of violence occur, we tend to focus – and this is not wrong – on the victims. We leave little room for a mind tormented as explanation. We don’t wish to hear it – naming these as excuses. So O’Brien does a good job here and throughout the book of examining the tormented and hallucinatory mind. Early on, she gives us the first inkling of a tortured upbringing.
He had been a child of ten and eleven and twelve years, and then he was not a child, because he had learnt the cruel things that they taught him in the places named after the saints.
Later, she asserts that the disappearance did not become a priority until a priest went missing. Such is the place of the Church and its social institutions, women and justice in Ireland. And O’Brien is a master of physical descriptions, as when she describes O’Kane’s stare, “his eyes like holes filled with vistas of nowhere.” She’s also no slouch as an evocative writer of mood, and physical descriptions of nature. Here, Eily imagines an idyll with her lover Sven:
…then they will park the car and go in their little lost road, the trees all in bud, catkins like feathered tapers, the blossom in mazed and snowy whiteness, thralling in the moonlight, bridal trees in the brief ravishment of springtime.
But he was not there and she wept at her rashness, her false pride, and her grandiloquent speech about being alone. Alone alone alone, the word galled her like the hungry cry of some cormorant, far out at sea.
Women are somehow to blame for their own misfortunes. When a desk Sergeant reads passages from Eily’s diary, he is appalled, and expresses his “moral repugnance“, especially at those passages “hinging on men and desire.” Women’s sexuality are not to be tolerated.
“She played with fire,” he says to himself.
The image of red hair as a motif occurs here, as it has in literature down through the ages all the way back to Judas Iscariot, and before that the Greeks and the Romans. In O’Brien’s novel she traces O’Kane’s fascination with Eily to their very first encounter.
She was tall, hair all the way down her back, red hair, the ribs of it standing out, as if there was electricity in it, and when she turned, her eyes were gold spots, like the beam of his torch in the wood at night.
O’Brien has been criticized in some quarters for “exploitation”. I disagree. There is a long tradition of “based on real life events” novels. The sensitivity here seems to be of the thin-skinned variety: Church and Irish social structure have been offended.. But you can read it and judge for yourself. It’s an “easy” read, and you can breeze right through it in a weekend. It’s not an “uplifting” novel, but it is compelling.