Book Review of the Month: Night by Edna O’Brien
By Alice Hughes, on 4 November 2014
“To face the music at last. To be on one’s tod. Do I mean it? Apparently not.” (p7)
Night has been republished by Faber and Faber this year to complement Edna O’Brien’s bestselling memoir Country Girl which details the way she was driven into exile after the publication of her silence-breaking first novel. Edna O’Brien’s first novel The Country Girls was banned and publicly burned after being released in Ireland following World War II, where female sexuality was strictly censored.
Now, thanks to controversial publications like hers, feminist activism, the sexual revolution and their subsequent effects, we can all read Edna O’Brien’s classic novel Night unashamedly on the Tube. Yet what is interesting about Night is that it is much more than a reflection on how the so-called ‘times’ have changed – many of the narrator’s problems resemble our own. Told by an original modern voice Mary Hooligan, as she lies approaching middle-age on a four-poster bed, the story consists of unchronological, often racy accounts which culminate as necessary truths. Delving into the pages of a dazzling novel like this is better than an out-of-body experience, because it forces us out of the in-built, unseeing nooks and crannies in which we like to hide. Mary is lying in a bed foreign from her own, being paid by the couple who own the house to look after it, and perhaps this is why her narration is so perceptive.
In O’Brien’s story you’ll find dreamt up words and fantastical names for the most ordinary of people, feasts of Modernist and Shakespearean assemblies, Old and Modern Irish turns of phrase, Victorian and bitingly contemporary prose. Mary’s memories of her childhood in Coose are as vivid and honest as those of her sexual encounters. She encapsulates the lovers she uses to avert both loneliness and intimacy as “[a] motley crew, all shades, dimensions, breeds, ilks, national characteristics, inflammatingness, and penetratingness” (p27). She is not afraid to spill all the tragi-comic details of her life, whether about her marriage to the cold desperado Dr. Flaggler, her divorce, her loneliness without her son Tutsie who has left to travel around the world, her relationship with her alcoholic father Boss and the death of her mother Lil.
Night teaches us we are all products of language – strings of signifiers and idioms. What makes language so powerful is that it can spread across time and acquire new meaning in different contexts. From her new bed Mary is overcome by memory, but she is still able to command the archaic and elemental, whilst slipping ingeniously into visions of our present. Her linguistic anti-monument celebrates the expression we are all capable of if we travel outside the comfortable, enclosed towers of ourselves.
Mary spins many tales of her love life, but these go beyond the well-worn love formula of lovers, the boundaries they face and the conclusion of resolution or tragedy. Through her astute stream of consciousness human relationships are awkwardly unsteady, unbalanced in power, exposed and unanswerable, showing the way we talk of a lover often reveals more about the way we view ourselves.
Her relationship with her mother is at once suffocating and irreplaceable. Lil’s funeral becomes darkly comedic as Mary jumps into her grave and later Lil makes a bizarre ghostly appearance. Both these moments reveal the way we deal with the painful truths and gruesome details of life – we either laugh or cry – and we all share that strange oscillation between life and death, eros and ending.
Throughout Night Mary recounts vulnerable moments mirroring the emotions we keep hushed and private, whether being ordered to pose in a certain way during her time as a nude model in a life drawing art class, or being instructed during experimental sexual experiences. In doing so, she exposes the scripts we read and the saccharine parts we play in social situations. She continually performs our shared fear of excessive social visibility and being viewed as an outsider; during an upper class dinner party with her mock-eccentric lover the Duke she tells of our simultaneous position as object and voyeur: “I watched their mouths, I watched their tongues, like tentacles, I watched their jaws, I could visualise my own” (p112).
Above all, Mary has a refreshing appetite for everyday life and it is her unique insight which discloses how true revelations come about in un-cinematic ways without glitzy props or dramatic backing music. What’s more, Edna O’Brien’s synaesthesia of the everyday sheds shameful light on our replacement of human nature and relationships with the laminate of ornament, scripts and images. In Mary Hooligan’s world one tiny ordinary stimulus makes every part of us retort involuntarily until we see human experience anew. The mundane and embarrassing become heart-stoppingly beautiful because they are worries shared by us all.
Introduce yourself to Mary Hooligan and prepare for a winter night of woozy lust and misplaced illumination. It will take a long time before O’Brien’s provocative page-dust settles – and perhaps, if you pick up the uncomfortable pleasure of Night, it never will.
Edna, O’Brien, Night (London: Faber and Faber, 2014)