Friday, November 1, 2013

Ireland/Northern Ireland: House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O'Brien

Long ago, after reading House of Mirth, I told my spouse--only partially in jest--that literature means a well-written book that ends badly. Still, a bad (sad) ending can be the right one for the characters developed. House of Splendid Isolation is an example of literature where the end is exactly as it should be, based on the internal logic of the characters and their circumstances.

I selected the book because one of the central figures is a member of the Irish Republican Army. That IRA dominated the news in my youth, and I've read that 3,500 people died in the period called "The Troubles."

In this book, an IRA member is hiding in a house in Ireland (the south, to him), which he believes to be empty when he breaks in.  It turns out that the widow who owns the home is back in residence, and a key part of the book revolves around their interactions.

Josie, the widow, expects to die. She writes in her diary, "Being in this sort of situation sharpens everything. I notice how cold for instance the frame of my glasses were this morning and I saw each blade of grass outside the window, nodding or still, and the hills so soft and hazed, the near hills and the far, hills that I both loved and hated, spoke to or wept to..." (p. 84).

The IRA operative leaves her a note.

"No one knows or cares about our struggle. They think we're cowboys or animals or worse. You think it too...For one minute look at it from my side...Not to grow up in hate, not to have been Papist leper scum, not to have been interned at fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, not to have been in the Crum and Longkesh [prisons] and waiting to go on the blocks, now that would have been out of this world. To be an ordinary bloke with a wife and kids--I just can't imagine it...I have one wish--I am afraid I don't pray--that all the deaths have not been in vain." (p. 121-122).

She thinks a bit later about a conversation they had, "The words he had used--Justice . . . Identity . . . Community. What did those words mean? What value had they against the horrors of crime?" (p. 123). 

That is the central question of the novel, unanswered at the end and perhaps still.

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