It begins with a hook. The kind of line that is simple, yet resonant with promise: To know them would be to enter an exalted world.
The second line begins with another ‘To’, and lets it echo, twice more. This is a lesson in how to use, rather than misuse, repetition. It might be called playful, it creates a lyrical effect, but this is also devious.
That ‘it’ draws me in. I share with the narrator an imagined idea of moving, step by step, closer to ‘them‘. ‘To open the stiff green iron gate, to go up their shaded avenue, and to knock on their white hall door…’ She yearns to make that journey, while I am additionally intrigued by her desire. Who is this ‘I’?
It’s not just the rhythm of her writing that draws me, those few precise details are enough for me to hold an image of that house. Despite the importance of this place and these people, to the narrator, and the concrete precision of the images she supplies, the details are sparing.
What she gives me is a flower garden with fountains, a water-lily pond, and monkey-puzzle trees. The quantity implied in these three features suggest wealth and land, but the narrator allows us to arrange them.
I’m certain that if Edna O’Brien and I sat at opposite ends of a table with crayons and paper, we would produce very different images of the setting, even while we included the given details. Hers might be the origin of this story, but while I read, the picture is as I see it.
I am transported to Ireland, in the first place, because I know Edna O’Brien is an Irish writer. If I hadn’t at the least suspected that, my version of this house and garden may have hovered above a number of countries, as I gathered clues. Luckily, this is only the first story in a large collection published under the title, A Fanatic Heart. The back cover promises me:
Love and loss, the villages and countryside of western Ireland…
Had The Connor Girls been presented in a cosmopolitan anthology, following stories by, for instance, Margaret Attwood, or Carmel Bird, I don’t think I’d have made a confident guess about nationality until near the end of the first paragraph. That’s after I’ve been given the gossip about the major, and how his son died.
Not even their tragedy brought them closer to the people in the town, partly because they were aloof, but being Protestants, the Catholics could not attend the service in the church or go to the Protestant graveyard, where they had a vault with steps leading down to it, just like a house.
Is that, or is that not, a beautifully balanced sentence? It’s distinctive, confiding, gossipy and laden with social and political colour.
If you liked that one, try this:
The Connor girls were not beauties but they were distinguished, and they talked in an accent that made everyone else’s seem flat and sprawling, like some familiar estuary or a puddle in a field.
We’re in the second paragraph, near the bottom of the first page, and the narrator has mentioned friends from Dublin. I can set my house down in southern-Ireland. I have no named district, but if I hadn’t known before how to colour this setting, I do now.
I’m drawing from memories of a too-brief stay that took in glimpses of the country between the ferry port at Rosslare, and a birthday party in Meath. What struck me was the quality of the light, reflected from the verdant landscape. At last I understood why Ireland was always referred to as green.
Add to that scenes from films and tv shows; images from paintings and photographs, and imaginings raised by other Irish and Anglo Irish writers. Behind O’Brien I seemed to see William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen, particularly, The Last September.
Am I thinking all of this as I read? Of course not, I’m submerged in story, and the flashes of connection are fleeting. I compare it to moments in my real life, when despite apparently total involvement in an event, my mind draws links with parallel experiences.
I’m not sure if it is either possible or desirable to write without connecting to previous fictions. There are people who aspire to, but I wonder about what kind of writing that could be.