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They say the curse of the Irish is the drink. But to understand your own brutal, beautiful country as well as Edna O'Brien understands hers must be a bigger curse by far. There's no way a blessed person could have written a novel as shimmering, as ruthless and as devastating as Down by the River: it's evidence of something more than mere talent, or even genius, at work. O'Brien's gifts are magnificent and terrifying, along the lines of stigmata and clairvoyance -- the kind of gifts that mark you. With "Down by the River," O'Brien marks us as well: it's the kind of book that takes days, maybe weeks, to shake.
Inspired by a recent case in Ireland, in which a 14-year-old rape victim was forbidden by the courts to leave the country to obtain an abortion, Down by the River is the story of Mary MacNamara. After being raped by her father, Mary conceives his child. A sympathetic neighbor brings her to England for an abortion, but the authorities haul them back, cowing them with their ugly threats. Mary refuses to name the baby's father, and her case becomes a cause that turns her own friends and neighbors against her. She's seen as both a villain and an object of sanctimonious condescension in the Catholic community.
That community's cruelty is the bitter, driving force of the book -- but it's Mary's suffering and loneliness that are at the heart of it. After a street musician befriends her (he lets her stay at his flat for a few days and buys her a cheap sweater), she writes him a letter: "I nearly died when you gave me that jumper. You shouldn't have. Turquoise is my favorite color. There are two kinds of alone, there's the kind which you are and the kind which I am. Your alone is beautiful, it's rich." It's a passage that takes you apart, the way a teenager's breathless enthusiasm is crushed by the young woman's overwhelming sense of fear and isolation.
O'Brien never takes the easy way out: not even Mary's father is painted as a monster. She describes how he helps birth a colt -- reaching into the mare's womb and coaxing it out by both brute strength and force of will, saving the mother's life in the process -- with such grace and tenderness that even against your will, you feel yourself almost growing to understand him.
But O'Brien doesn't hold back when it comes to her wrath at the Catholic Church, and at the small-minded Irish who slavishly follow it at the expense of their own humanity. O'Brien has lived in London for more than 20 years -- she isn't welcome in her own country, for obvious reasons -- and yet Ireland will never leave her. Her stories work on us exactly the way her homeland has worked on her. They can stare you down and tear you apart like a wolf -- and then, miraculously and tenderly, bring you back to life again, stronger and better than before. -- Salon