by Edna O'Brien
Published by Houghton-Mifflin
259 pages, 2000
Buy it online
No Danny Boy
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
"Violet Hill, fluid, flowing, a brindled phantom upon the mountain in the early morning, a vision that streaked back and forth like a painted picture and then again in the dusk, becoming one with the dusk, except for her eyes, which glowed wildly." This description of a magnificent racing greyhound illustrates the wild, dark, stream-of-consciousness style which has made Edna O'Brien something of a legend in her long career. Her 22nd work of fiction, Wild Decembers, is as stormy and bittersweet as its title, telling an age-old tale in a way that sweeps away the cobwebs and exposes the bare nerves of human pride.
O'Brien has inspired comparisons with some of the literary greats, including Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O'Connor and even Colette. But her style is very much her own, often bitter and acidic, yet paradoxically brimming with rambunctious, sensual life. Wild Decembers is all about the struggle between two men to claim a patch of land on a mountain in Cloontha, western Ireland. The sister of one of the men falls in love with the rival. What could be more timeworn, even cliched, than a simple struggle for dominance and birthright, complicated by forbidden love? Yet O'Brien's telling is so masterful that it is as if this situation has never been heard of before.
The two men, Joseph Brennan and Mick Bugler, are distantly related, "the warring sons of warring sons," locked in "the crazed and phantom lust for a lip of land." Brennan's people have been farming on the land for generations, so he sees Mick Bugler as an interloper and a pretender. Bugler is not even Irish, not properly Irish anyway, having come over from a sheep station in Australia to claim his supposed inheritance on the mountain called Slieve Clochan.
And then there is Breege, Joseph's sensitive and withdrawn younger sister, who has given over her life to caring for her brother. Her considerable passion has been deeply suppressed by a sheltered and stifling existence until Mick Bugler drives in on his shiny-new tractor, stirring in her feelings she has never dared acknowledge before. Though Mick and Joseph make a rather forced show of friendship at the beginning, Bugler's intentions to encroach on Brennan's land soon become clear. Even the suggestion that Breege may be attracted to Bugler causes Joseph to subject her to a vicious beating which leaves her cowed with terror.
This is the first of many shocks in Wild Decembers. Up to this point, Joseph strikes us as a broody and obsessive, but basically decent, human being who only wants what he believes is rightfully his. The beating strips away this veneer to reveal a seething, hateful jealousy that will eventually drive him to even more desperate acts of violence. The roots of this hatred are impossible to find, buried deep in past generations, fueled and fed both by historic injustice and even the most innocent acts in the present day.
The novel's setting in the small rural community of Cloontha is as crucial as its basic story. The people of the town become a sort of third protagonist, aiding and abetting the escalating feud in the most spiteful way possible. Someone forges love notes to Breege so Joseph will believe that Mick Bugler is actively courting her. Barbed-wire is strung across parts of the land, complicating the endless legal wrangling between the two men. Worst of all, Joseph's prize greyhound Violet Hill is found dead, suspiciously near Bugler's vehicle. In this heartbreaking scene Breege tries to convince her brother that her lover is innocent as they prepare the dog for burial:
They laid her on the towel on the table, and he bathed her and fixed her like the pieces of a jigsaw so that she was the perfect but unbreathing simulation of what she had been, forever consigned to memory, intact, the fawn delicacy that he had known, that the countryside had known, and with his thumb he closed the almond eyes that were trusting even in death.
The minor characters in this brilliant but dark novel provide a welcome bit of comic relief tinged with elements of the grotesque. The infamous sisters Reena and Rita, bursting with overripe sexuality, set about to seduce the newcomer Mick Bugler in a hilarious scene which ends with Mick fleeing their house without his trousers.
The social outcast known as The Crock, an addled old man with a hump on his back, is shunned, yet also treated as a wisely comic figure, a sort of subversive sage. To complicate the already troubled relationship between Mick and Breege, his fiancee Rosemary shows up from the sheep station in Australia to claim her man. She is a forthright and strapping girl with a bulldozer personality to match: "Her nails are painted bright red and long as beaks." When she has a fight with Mick, he tells her, "The softest bit of you is your teeth."
These comic moments aside, Wild Decembers is a troubling novel, laying bare some of the worst elements in the human condition. The endless turmoil over land and love lead to a kind of madness which must of necessity end in tragedy. Though it becomes clear that the seemingly frail Breege has enough inner strength to weather even the worst disaster, there is a strong implication that this land feud and the bitterness behind it will carry over even into the next generation.
Wild Decembers is very hard to place in time. Modern references which seem to put it in the present day clash with attitudes that are so backward as to be positively medieval. Perhaps this was intended, to emphasize the timelessness of this sort of insanity, driven by pride and a crazed need to win. Though the story is about the Irish and their almost irrational passion for the land, it is really about all of us, and those battles for dominance and control which, for whatever reason, we can't let go. | April 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 100 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has just finished her first novel, A Singing Tree.