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In the Forest: A Novel Hardcover – March 29, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

In the best of Edna O'Brien's novels, there is a lawless element, a violence, that springs up to satisfy some primal urge: revenge, desire, thwarted love, or even the seemingly contrasting need of a community for balance and order. In the Forest is based on a true story of a local terror, a murderer sprung from the fertile soil of the west Ireland countryside. Michen O'Kane is a loving boy gone bad. His father beat his mother, and his mother died young, leaving 10-year-old Michen to the indifferent care of relatives and teachers. A rich fantasy life and little outside guidance quickly lead to a detention center, where Michen is the prey of bullies, as well as of a kindly priest with an unfortunate use for small boys. But none of these factors fully explains Michen's transformation into a killer. It is one of the strengths of this difficult and beautifully written novel that the lyrical fragments of Michen's tale--told from various points of view--do not completely add up. The dark mysteries of psychosis are left intact. We have only evocative glimpses of Michen's inner world and a crystal-clear image of the ruin he left behind. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

Based on a real triple homicide that shocked Ireland in 1994, O'Brien's short, stark and eloquent novel reveals an unforgettable prospect of hell. This hell is contained in the feverishly disturbed mind of Michen O'Kane (perhaps a wordplay on Cain), the murderer. From an early age, O'Kane displays spontaneous unsociability, for which he is punished with unremitting cruelty, first by his wife-beating father, then by the villagers of Cloosh, his small Irish village, and then by the Irish juvenile detention system, where he is sodomized and psychologically tortured. O'Kane comes back to Cloosh a ticking bomb, hearing voices in his head. After he sets up a camp in the woods, he sets his sights on a relative stranger in the village, a free spirit named Eily Ryan who, with her son, Maddie, is living a modern, single mother's lifestyle obscurely disapproved of by the conservative villagers. One morning O'Kane kidnaps her and the boy. She's forced to drive O'Kane to his woods, passing through the village in full view of several frightened bystanders, who do nothing to help her. After murdering his two victims, O'Kane kidnaps a priest and repeats the act. Like Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, this story is about acts of naked violence that put to an extreme test the proposition that nothing human is alien to us. O'Brien's brilliant stroke is to make us understand that O'Kane is not merely a savage madman, by placing him in the milieu that formed his character. Incapable of overcoming childhood patterns of violence, O'Kane, in a horribly distorted way, becomes our mirror image; he's both "the personification of evil" and our "own flesh and blood, gone amok." O'Brien's sentient, sonorous prose makes both O'Kane's inner world and his environment nearly palpable. 4-city author tour.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1st edition (March 29, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618197303
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618197309
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,644,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Edna O'Brien, the author of "The Country Girls" Trilogy, "The Light of Evening," and "Byron in Love," is the recipient of the James Joyce Ulysses Medal, and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Laure-Madeleine on April 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
After reading the opening paragraph of this newest novel from Edna O'Brien, 'In the Forest,' I was hooked. Her lush prose is so descriptive that I felt I was being drawn into that dark wood to revisit the scene of one of the most heinous crimes in the Irish Republic in the past twenty years. Between April 29 and May 7, 1994, Brendan O'Donnell, 20, abducted five people and murdered three. The innocent victims, whose bodies were found in shallow graves in Cleggs Woods, were artist Imelda Riney, her 3-year-old son, Liam, and Father Joe Walsh. At the time, the consciousness of the countryside of County Clare, where Ms. O'Brien had grown up, was galvanized in fear of this psychopathic killer. 'They are afraid of him now, the Kinderschreck, one of their own sons come out of their own soil, their own flesh and blood, gone amok.' Mr. O'Donnell was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment, but, in 1997, he died while in prison from a drug interaction.
Not since reading 'In Cold Blood,' by Truman Capote, have I encountered a book based on a true crime as riveting as this one. This Irish Gothic novel is 'faction'; Ms. O'Brien bases her narrative on factual events around the time of the crime, but she has fictionalized the names and places. The editorial reviews give a good plot synopsis for this novel, so I will focus my remarks elsewhere.
Ms. O'Brien uses the true crime story as a springboard to comment on the Irish experience. Here she handles such hot topics as politics and sexual politics, paganism, priest pedophilia, and child abuse.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
"In the Forest" borders on creative nonfiction. Based on real, gruesome events which took place in one of the western counties of Ireland, the book is a fictionalized account of these events, augmented by equally fictional life story of the protagonist. It's hard to say that Michen O'Kane is a protagonist, really, because the weight of importance is quite substantially dispersed in the novel. Although the events and the backbone of the storyline are central to the narration, I think the author has undertaken quite a different direction in the book; the ultimate accent is put on the setting, the neighborhood, the analysis of circumstances, rather than the usual set of characters, be they major or minor. The author almost never ventures deeply into the character's introspection, which is merely just another block in the mosaic, never dominating the remainder. Despite that fact, "In the Forest" is a fascinating psychological studium of deviation. Having provided the literary account of the slaughter and the paranoia that preceded it, Edna O'Brien wanted to pin down the reasons why at one time in the life of a man, a seemingly unimportant event can change the whole life of this individual, what are the motivations that inevitably push him to the edge of the abyss, and then one step too far, past the point of return, and precisely why there is no point of return, once the mind snaps, once the critical mass of confusion is achieved, and the darkness of madness starts to dominate from that point on.
One might suppose that to provide a fictional background for the shocking, real-life events is quite common and unoriginal, and that the reader might pretty well guess what to expect from the novel of this type.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Charles Slovenski on April 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Edna O'Brien, with this novel and "Girl with the Green Eyes," became part of my first trip to Dublin. Despite my motives for perusing charming Irish stories, this novel is anything but lightweight and packs a sobering and disturbing emotional wallop.
This is the story of Mich, demented young man ripe for murder. Ms. O'Brien traces his emotional development and dementia through a precise and evocative outline of his mother's death, the constant abuse from other children and adults at home and later in various institutions, including sexual abuse by a priest as well as physical abuse by guards. By the time he is let out of these institutions he claims that his head "isn't right" and is already a proven criminal. Ms. O'Brien makes it clear that although he is dangerous, he suffers intense emotional turmoil.

This is also a story of a West Ireland country community and several new residents such as a young woman named Eily and her three year old son Maddie. When Mich is let out of prison and returns to the village he stalks Eily and eventually abducts her and her son. The entire community is terrified of Mich but are slow to react and are, as a result, responsible in part for the tragedies which occur. Finally, after the crimes have been committed, panic sets in and Mich is hunted down both by civilians and law enforcers with avidity. This thirst for justice continues throughout his capture and interrogations. Every recounted moment is agonizing and painful from the point of view of both the criminal and the lawmen. Mich is convicted and descends further into his own mental hell. Despite the occasional use of harmless Irish colloquialisms and customs, this story is deeply upsetting.
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