begins lushly with a prologue that's as much a prose poem as a map, full of cautionary demarcations. "Cloontha it is called--a locality within the bending of an arm," Edna O'Brien writes of her setting in western Ireland. With its "relics of battles of the long ago" and memories of the potato famine still in the soil, it's clear that "the enemy can come at any hour." This time, the enemy appears in the form of Mick Bugler--described variously as a "dark horse," a "caveman," and "the Shepherd"--who has returned from Australia to claim his late uncle's farm. To Joseph Brennan, as native to tiny Cloontha as its relics, the stranger who has taken possession of the farm next to his is briefly a novelty, less briefly a friend, and finally excites in him a fear and a love of boundaries that proves murderous.
O'Brien's Irish hero recites biblical, Greek, and Irish history, mingling them until the world's story, as he sees it, is a tribute to immovable men such as Moses, who he swears settled Cloontha for the likes of him. Unmarried and devoted to the sister with whom he lives, Joseph is so blind with love for the life and land he and his forebears have earned--and with the will to preserve them against the barest change--that his own inability to give way is his undoing. Inevitably, his sister Breege and Bugler fall in love, but, in a landscape where everything is a contest of ownership and men measure their stature against a woman's fidelity, this love thrives exuberantly, though not lastingly, like "flowers that are hatched in the snows." In her 11th novel, O'Brien gives as good as Shakespeare: there's a little of Iago in the town fool, a deliciously nasty cripple named Crock, and a little of Ophelia in pretty Breege. The author means to break your heart, and her startling and redemptive prose leaves you as nostalgic as Joseph Brennan for what might have been, as eager for the next chapter as you are disquieted by its implications. --Amy Grace Loyd
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From Publishers Weekly
The wild Irish humor and savage Irish melancholy that are both legend and stereotype receive exemplary treatment in this powerful novel by the prolific O'Brien (Down by the River; Time and Tide; Lantern Slides). Scenic Western Ireland is the setting for her tale, and particularly Cloontha, a village snug against a mountain where "lust for a lip of land" has set "warring sons of warring sons" against one another for centuries. Bachelor Joseph Brennan and his young sister, Breege, have never left their family acreage; Mick Bugler is newly arrived from Australia to claim adjacent land inherited from an uncle. They meet amicably when Mick's tractor gets stuck in Joe's farmyard, but their budding friendship soon sours, even as Breege, secretly smitten with the handsome newcomer, tries to pacify her irascible brother. The tractor, a novelty in the area, is dubbed Dino the Dinosaur by one of a notorious pair of sisters, Reena, "a child of nature," and Rita, a conniving slut. Their seduction of Bugler in order to obtain a free load of hay is exuberantly erotic, but this episode does not deflect the reader's woeful sense of foreboding about the growing conflict over territory between Joe and Bugler. Bugler admits he has a fiancee in Australia, so Joe is increasingly distraught as he senses and fears the halting romance between his innocent sister and the man he considers "the despoiler." The climate, the landscape, the history, all so deeply ingrained in the native Irish psyche, underscore the suspense. Remaining unflinchingly true to her characters, O'Brien allows the inevitable tragedy to play itself out, evincing the pity and terror of classical drama. 5-city author tour. (Apr.)
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