Dah Duit (Hi) and welcome

Love and longing, freedom and bondage haunt Edna O'Brien's short stories in the collection 'The Love Object'

             

Earl Pike, Special to The Plain Dealer  By  Earl Pike, Special to The Plain Dealer  

The Love Object: Selected Stories
By Edna O'Brien
Little, Brown, 525 pp., $30

It may be unprecedented – it is at least highly unusual – for a single author to give two separate books the same title. Edna O'Brien's first volume of short stories, published in 1968, was called "The Love Object and Other Stories." Her most recent volume, released in May of this year, is "The Love Object: Selected Stories" (Little, Brown, 525 pp., $30).
This could lead to search-engine confusion, but it also, in a peculiar way, serves to bookend a half-century of writing by the doyenne of Irish literature and perhaps one of the most gifted short-story writers alive.
"The Love Object" is a collection of 31 pieces spanning five decades. O'Brien's most devoted readers, who have already had the opportunity to read eight previous volumes of short fiction, will find nothing new. But for those acquainted with O'Brien mainly through her many novels (going all the way back to 1960), "The Love Object" will serve as an ample feast composed of smaller portions, and a judiciously selected menu of her recurring themes, tropes and literary concerns.
O'Brien's stories embrace expanded domesticities that unfold across omnipresent Irish landscapes, exploring personified themes of love and longing, subversive sexuality, inscriptions of gender, class and bondage, and the continually sublimated but sometimes seething tensions between the moorings of tradition and the freedom of escape, self-creation.
Her Ireland is a "land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange sacrificial women," where individuals face dilemmas that offer both possibility and bondage, and "by such choices we gradually become exiles, until at last we are quite alone."
In "The Creature," the connecting threads between teacher and student, mother and son, are severed. "Sister Imelda" explores the life of a nun as both submission and rebellion, narrated through small, everyday acts. The story "The Love Object" details an affair, from its sparking flash of lust through its complicated negotiations of rules, meanings and incomplete resolutions.
"Old Wounds" illuminates the power of memory and familial bonds against age, decay, the dying of the light. In "Irish Revel," 17-year-old Mary, a country girl, attends a party for the first time; her romantic idealizations of what it will be like are deflated by the sloppy drunkenness of the male partygoers and the realization that she had been invited primarily as kitchen help – like many of O'Brien's stories, "Irish Revel" is marked by displaced identity and loneliness set against hopes for a better, fuller life.
Throughout, sometimes as ghosts and shadows, but sometimes more overtly through such pieces as "Black Flower," "Green Georgette" and "Shovel Kings," the reality of Ireland, as a working-class nation, with hard soil and harder histories, through all its wars and Troubles, is always there.
O'Brien is not a floral writer; her prose is earthen and solid, plain and descriptive. "You are passing through, on your way to something livelier" is not a particularly ornate depiction of a small village, but it is elegantly descriptive and familiarly evocative.
It is a kind of writing that serves the characters, rather than burying them in language. It's no surprise, then, that the reader so regularly identifies with the collection's inhabitants: The men and women, boys and girls throughout, are us, or someone near to us.
"The Love Object" is less a catalog than a kind of humanist Rosary – and each bead, each story, is a prayer, a meditation, a supplication, a lament, a confession.
We rub the hard beads between soft fingers, not as a gesture of intellectual decoding, but as an act of sensing, feeling our way into O'Brien's created lives, the mysteries of common human experience, where the everyday is profound and gently affecting, and the profane becomes sacred.

Pike is a critic in Cleveland Heights.