Ireland's political strife is reduced to the microcosm of a moldering lakeside estate in O'Brien's new novel. An IRA gunman named McGreevey has jumped off a police van in Northern Ireland and conned his way across the border. He heads for Josie O'Meara's house, but the widow has returned unexpectedly from a nursing home—alone, bedridden and haunted by memories of her marriage to a brutish horse breeder and by her humiliating attempt at romance with the parish priest. The two fall prey to Stockholm syndrome, that strange breakdown of barriers between captive and captor, and their fates become entwined.
Though it contains some beautiful passages, House is disappointing. The men are stick figures who spout political clichés, and when the terrorists pick a target, we barely know who he is. O'Brien has told interviewers she has said all she has to say about melancholy women, but Josie is the only vivid character. After 14 novels the author is obviously searching for new themes, but it may be that O'Brien—who has lived in London for some 20 years—has been gone from her homeland too long. (Farrar Strauss Giroux, $21)