If only a travel writer could portray contemporary Irish life with such mesmerizing clarity as novelist Edna O'Brien. Whether their protagonists are dowdy country folk or elegant Dublin partygoers, the stories in O'Brien's fifth collection (her 13 other books are novels and screenplays) are so evocative you can almost believe you've been transported to the Emerald Isle.
But then, like all good stories, these are about more than their own characters and place. In the title story (also the longest and most successful), a woman known only as Miss Lawless attends a glamorous Dublin dinner party with a male companion who has never been her lover although she has always been "half of his heart's desire." Miss Lawless, who once suffered an ill-fated love affair, is prim and reserved until she meets a latecomer to the party whom she hopes will provide romantic renewal: "It was like a spell.... It was as if life were just beginning—tender, spectacular, all-embracing life—and she, like everyone, were jumping up to catch it. Catch it."
If there is a theme to this collection, it is the quest for redemption, whether sought by the jilted lover of a married man in "Epitaph" or the mother who quarrels with her son in "Storm."
O'Brien, evoking moods and revealing characters, can be poetic: "Soon she would feel as she had felt long ago—like a river that winds its way back into its first beloved enclave before finally putting out to sea." That's true even when the images are mundane: "Somehow the party had begun to trigger in her a host of things, memory upon memory, like hands placed on top of one another in a childhood game."
She also knows how to tell a direct story, as she does about the effeminate shopkeeper in "Dramas," who was "not such a favorite with the men, both because he raved to the women and because he voiced the notion of bringing drama to the town." But even when her tales have plots and characters that are as ephemeral as an Irish mist, O'Brien's voice—earthy and liturgical—sustains them. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.95)