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Saints and Sinners: Stories Paperback – May 9, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
O'Brien (The Light of Evening) mixes her trademark lyricism with a brutal depiction of lives marred by violence, whether a pining lover whose life has been upended or a dreamer whose fate leads him to a cold death in the wild. "Sinners" depicts one night in the life of a fusty innkeeper whose prudish disgust at a trio of guests is slowly revealed to have roots in her own loneliness. In "Black Flower" a former prison art teacher drives to the countryside with a newly released veteran of Ireland's freedom fights—and a likely target for revenge. The narrator of "Plunder" is a young girl caught in a civil war who describes cowering in fear and her torments at the hands of the enemy. Another young girl narrates "Green Georgette" and endures the emotional hardship of class divisions, while in "Send My Roots Rain" a woman sits in a Dublin hotel lobby awaiting a reclusive poet and thinks back on love affairs and disappointments. And in "Manhattan Medley" a transplant to the big city begins an affair with a man and describes in rich prose how it has permeated her life. Throughout, tragedy mingles with beauty, yearning with survival, and destruction with moments of grace. (May)
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PRAISE FOR SAINTS AND SINNERS:
"Edna O'Brien writes the most beautiful, aching stories of any writer, anywhere."―Alice Munro
"One great virtue of Edna O'Brien's writing is the sensation it gives of a world made new by language. . . . A lyric language which is all the more trustworthy because it issues from a sensibility that has known the costs as well as the rewards of being alive."―Seamus Heaney, from "Citation, Lifetime Achievement Award"
"O'Brien mixes her trademark lyricism with a brutal depiction of lives marred by violence...Throughout, tragedy mingles with beauty, yearning with survival, and destruction with moments of grace."―Publishers Weekly
"Fifty years after leaving County Clare for London, the doyenne of Irish fiction, Edna O'Brien, is still preoccupied with the land of her birth....[Saints and Sinners] is a shimmering book--lyric, but highly controlled."―Rachel Cooke, The Observer (London)
"Ever since the publication of The Country Girls, in 1960, O'Brien's work has been recognized as something new, turning themes of sexual repression into joyful experiment and the age-old sadness of exile into an opportunity to explore a brave new world....Subversion is what catapulted Edna O'Brien to literary stardom an incredible half century ago and, at the top of her game, she can still cut the ground from under your feet."―Aisling Foster, The Times (London)
"The world, if viewed in clichéd terms, is indeed populated by the two types of individuals cited in the title of this new collection of short stories by the doyenne of contemporary Irish literature, an acknowledged master of the form. But that is all that is clichéd about this splendid book....Eleven stories in total bring literary lovers' rapt attention to this author's clear, immaculate style and her brilliant selection of detail, nimble plot construction, and astute character delineation. Recommend O'Brien along with William Trevor and Alice Munro."―Brad Hooper, Booklist
"Half a century after her incendiary debut novel...Edna O'Brien still holds her place as a revealer of the nation's soul. She shows its 'maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious' character, in this latest elegant, uncluttered collection, to have a remarkable, tragic forbearance for suffering...In a lovely flourish, O'Brien scatters her stories with small, beautifully-tended and thrillingly described gardens, as lush as they are sweet-smelling. Some sit on the fringes of the story, others offer respite for characters who stumble across them in passing, but they emerge time and again like little plots of makeshift Edens for the fallen."―Arifa Akbar, Independent (London)
"O'Brien's new collection of stories, Saints and Sinners, features plenty of sex, plenty of people who are all very much alive, living bravely in the face of death. Her protagonists are wonderfully flawed and vulnerable....complexity and ambivalence gives her work great depth and charge...So who are the eponymous saints? Who are the new Adam and Eve? O'Brien's compassionate, mesmerizing tales exhilaratingly refuse to spell that out."―Michele Roberts, Financial Times
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Top Customer Reviews
O'Brien was born in 1930 in Country Clare, Ireland. The years immediately after her birth are ones O'Brien characterizes as a time full of "economic despair." The financial misfortunes of the O'Brien family was something that particularly irked Edna's mother. For her parents had not always been poor. In fact, Edna's father's side of the family had once been a prominent and wealthy family from Boston, but according to Edna the family wealth was "frittered" away.
One gets the sense that the succession of misfortunes, the "economic war, animals sold for next to nothing...no money to fertilize the field, no machinery to work" that befell the O'Brien's left her mother the most hardened. O'Brien describes her mother as someone who was "to some extent broken." She felt her mother had a "fear that [her daughter] was on the road to perdition."
In "Saints and Sinners", the theme of family distance and damaged love is a recurring one.
A central paradox in these stories is that O'Brien is both a worshipper of words (words "were of themselves animate, and when grouped together [have] an alchemy to them"), who at that same time creates vast distance between her characters- a distance so vast as to be insurmountable with the use of language.
In "My Two Mothers", the most autographical of any of the stories in this collection, "the female narrator recollects a series of memories about her late mother. She writes of a recent dream, "My mother's hand is on the razor and then her face comes into view, swimming as it were towards me...to cut the tongue out of me."
The mother's pain and jealousy, or what the narrator perceives to be the mother's pain and jealousy, stands opposed to the daughter's desire to communicate through words. The "two mothers" of the story are the narrator's dream mother and her real mother.
The irony of "My Two Mothers" is that the narrator's mother, who aimed to "cut" the creative voice out of her daughter, is at the same time a source of words and inspiration for the narrator- for she is the topic of the story. The mother in her attempt to squash her daughter's creative spirit unwittingly does the exact opposite. The pull to create stands above all.
"Manhattan Medley" is the tale of a love affair, told through a series of letters that one gets the impression were never sent. They are a diary disguised as letters, a self-indulgent attempt to understand. The letter's female author writes, "We would not enter into a marriage that must by necessity become a little stale, a little routined." The affair reveals itself as the empty vessel the protagonist throws herself into headfirst. She is lonely. This is a story of flight, of letters and words that never reach their intended recipient.
The power, and simultaneous inadequacy, of language. Moral ambiguity. Mist-covered bogs. "Old Wounds". Love lost. A final paradox of the collection of short fiction is its title: "Saints and Sinners". The world of these stories is anything but morally black and white. The title tempts the lazy reader. Its irony serves almost as an admonition: readers who see black and white, who see only saints and sinners in these stories or in life do not have a proper grasp of the power, and shortfalls, of humanity's best attempts to communicate.
You'll never get more black Irish than this, some without much humor, other with very dark and wonderful humor. And I write that as a compliment to the rich voice of this remarkable author. I have to confess that this is the first time I have read anything by Edna O'Brien. I must reform myself and read much more.
The opening story, "Shovel Kings," takes the reader into the darkness of life both outside--specifically London--and inside Ireland, where life is sustained, if at all, by drink where these characters live in poverty and suffer from abuse, told to the narrator, awaiting an appointment with a psychotherapist, by Rafferty, an exile of sorts whose life could be summarized by this sentence in the story: "Nothing was wrong...but nothing was right, either." I would say there was much that was wrong. As for the title, well it summarizes the existential lot of the Irish men who came to labor, for naught, in London.
In "Sinners," aging Delia has "lost that most heartfelt rapport that she once had with God," her prayers coming only from her lips, not "from deep within anymore." Delia's is an abode--that is also a small bed and breakfast--much in need of refreshing: wallpapers, paints, towels...everything. She is the mother of five, one dead, but they are like the wallpapers, faded images only, no longer present in her lonely life. Hers had not been a happy marriage, of course! Few are apparently in Edna O'Brien's works. Is there any happiness in any Irish households? one wonders when reading these brilliant stories.
In this story a family of three are staying over, and Delia projects so much upon them. But I am not going to tell you what. But if you are not laughing when you read this, then you have so sense of humor. None!
In "Madame Cassandra" Millie speaks in first person outside the caravan carrying Madame Cassandra, the gypsy seer, who appears not to wish to met with Millie--and the reader soon learns why. Millie reveals this about her past: "I cannot tell you what a relief it is to be here...to be able to let off a little steam." A little steam??!! Oh, no, this is a woman filled with wrath. And, of course, the sbuject of her discourse, filled with allusions to various mythologies, is her errant husband.
Okay! When these two sentences soon reveal themselves in "Black Flowers," "She didn't know him very well. She had volunteered to give painting lessons in the prison in the Midlands where he was serving a long sentence," then you know you're in for a good read.
I could write a lot more about this collection of stories, but hopefully this is enough of a taste so that you will want to order a copy. And I know two people who will be getting this as a gift from me!
In “Black Flower,” I like how O’Brien develops the character in such a manner that is so facile—but isn’t really. The black flower is a subtle metaphor for the man, but also the malaise existing between the two factions. “The petals were soft, velvety black, with tiny green eyes, pinpoints, and there was something both beautiful and sinister about it” (76).
“Old Wounds” is the story I like best in this collection. Love it, in fact. The lazy back-and-forthness through time, I suppose. The wounds, the healing of the wounds, the wounds again. Fight, make up. Like many families. Wounds. Heal.