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Down by the River

Down by the River

3.5 2
by Edna O'Brien

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Fourteen-year-old Mary MacNamara does not know the words for what her father did to her down by the river, but she knows nothing will ever be the same again. She lives in a small town in the rural West of Ireland where superstition and petty jealousies fester; where poverty and ignorance make people hard, bitter, and unforgiving. Mary will find scant justice or mercy


Fourteen-year-old Mary MacNamara does not know the words for what her father did to her down by the river, but she knows nothing will ever be the same again. She lives in a small town in the rural West of Ireland where superstition and petty jealousies fester; where poverty and ignorance make people hard, bitter, and unforgiving. Mary will find scant justice or mercy among those in her community--even less among those called to adjudicate upon her case in a city far away as her private tragedy is dragged into the public arena, making her doubly a victim, prey to militant factions on all sides. Recalling the controversial 1992 "Miss X" case which drew international attention and provoked a nationwide crisis of conscience within Ireland, Down by the River combines passionately held principle and rich, evocative language and imagery to transform a dark drama of violence and suppressed emotions into a work of art that is universal, cathartic, and sublime.
Down by the River was a national bestseller--#1 on Newsday list.
• Reviews of Down by the River are some of the best of O'Brien's distinguished career.
• O'Brien's previous novel, The House of Splendid Isolation, is now in its 7th printing in Plume.
• Renaissance of interest in Irish literature and culture has potential to draw a whole new audience to this important and quintessentially Irish writer.

Editorial Reviews

Stephanie Zacharek

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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Inspired by a highly controversial incident that took place in Ireland a few years ago, O'Brien's latest novel (after House of Splendid Isolation) is a riveting and resonating story. Mary, a young teenager, seems an ordinary girl but hides an abominable secret. For years, she has been brutalized and sexually abused by a monstrous father, a crime her victimized mother ignores. Even those--neighbors, priests and teachers--who know Mary and have their suspicions, say nothing. A dreadful silence is maintained in conformance to a society whose view of sexuality has become perverted by a fanatical church and a conservative state. When the forced incest results in Mary's pregnancy, a neighbor does rally to her side, but with disastrous results. Church and state use their full powers to enforce laws banning abortion; the consequences are devastating. Mary metamorphoses from terrified innocent to potential murderess. Her fate thrown into the hands of the "men in suits" in the courtroom and psychiatric ward, she is buffeted between the pro-life and the pro-choice camps like a human football, and her case fills headlines and blares from the television. Taking Mary's point of view, and revealing the full horror and pathos of her heroine's plight only gradually, O'Brien creates a stark, unflinching story. But a simultaneous poetic sense also embues the narrative with beauty and grace. O'Brien's early books were originally banned in her native Ireland for daring to put on paper the idea that Irish women had a sexuality at all. Here, she has written a harrowing, punchout of a book that leaves the reader drained. (May)
Library Journal
Well-known Irish novelist O'Brien follows her House of Splendid Isolation (LJ 4/1/94) with a novel that details the ugliest of themes in the most lyrical prose. The beauty of her language contrasts with the book's central tragedy, unforgettably illuminating this stark tale of a child's destruction. Growing up in rural Ireland, young Mary is at first confused, then terrified by her father's new physical attentions to her. Family emotions twist and conflict rapidly, reaching a nadir after Mary's mother dies. When Mary is impregnated by her father, she tries to run away, soon becoming a magnet for representatives of her community, religion, and government, all eager to manipulate her in the interests of their particular convictions, superstitions, and causes. The implicit social commentary, which is skillfully worked into the dark, intense narrative, emerges believably from plot and character development. For all literary fiction collections.Starr E. Smith, Marymount Univ. Lib., Arlington, Va.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.44(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt


A head of them the road runs in a long entwined undulation of mud, patched tar and fjords of green, the grassy surfaces rutted and trampled, but the young shoots surgent in the sun; flowers and flowering weed in full regalia, a carnival sight, foxglove highest and lordliest of all, the big furry bees nosing in the cool speckled recesses of mauve and white bell. O sun. O brazen egg-yolk albatross; elsewhere dappled and filtered through different muslins of leaf, an after-smell where that poor donkey collapsed, died and decayed; the frame of a car, turquoise once; rimed in rust, dock and nettle draping the torn seats, a shrine where a drunk and driven man put an end to himself, then at intervals rubbish dumps, the bottles, canisters, reading matter and rank gizzards of the town riff-raff stowed in the dead of night.

'Blackguards,' her father said. He always said that when he passed these dumps and vowed to look into his forefather's deeds and get his ownership straightened out. They walk in silence, the man several leagues ahead, his soft brown hat a greenish shard in the bright sunlight, a bold rapparee, his stride animated with a kind of revelrous frenzy, traffic growing fainter and fainter, a clackety river beyond and in the odd gusts of wind the under-sides of the larches purling up to show ballroom skirts of spun-silver. The road silent, somnolent yet with a speech of its own, speaking back to them, father and child, through trappings of sun and fretted verdure, speaking of the old mutinies and a fresh crime mounting in the blood.

The man carried a measuring tape -- one he had borrowed -- the girl, a tin can to collect blackberries. It was too early, berries on the stalks showed rawly pink, little excrescences purposing to come forth in a pained fruition. His spirits were buoyant because he was going to sell some of his fallow bogland, put it in plastic containers marked 'antiquity' and ship it. The brainwave had hit him the previous evening when he read in the paper about foreigners hankering for bog.

'It beats Banagher and Banagher beats the bank,' he had said. In Europe and beyond, men went out on Sundays, shedding their city constraints in search of the bemired underworld. One such lucky party of pioneers had come upon a man thousands of years old and while knowing it to be a matter of gravity, nevertheless brought away a portion of him, his little shrivelled bags, which in the paper were given the Latin name of Testa.

'We might even dig up a little man ... A cave man,' he said.

'I hope we don't,' Mary said.

He leapt to his task, threw off his jacket, as soon as they got there, extending the metal ruler down the moist seams of black-brown soil and hurrahed when it landed in the mire of the water. He shouted the measurements and she shouted them back to make sure that she had heard correctly. Pounds, shillings and pence danced before his eyes, carpets for her mother, her poor moiling mother, a bicycle for her and then getting carried away with his estimations he spun the metal tape in a wide and apostolic arc, a wand, pronouncing his claim over the deserted but fabled landscape, over furze and fern, lakewater and bogwater, bogwort, myrtle, sphagnum, the warblers' and the bitterns' cry; his empire. He struck out with it then waved and dandled it to verify both his powers and the riches which had lain so long, prone and concealed, waiting for the thrust of the slane. He fished in one bog hole, then the next, hooking on green scum and a frail cress with tiny white fibres, which he placed at her feet.

'Fancy a snack,' he said and presently he was combing a third lodge of water for a big fish, no more of your scutty little minnows, a salmon, eight, nine pounds in weight, something to get his bait into. Warming now to this charade he lifted the rod, shook it free of water, knelt to fix to it those juicy worms which had been suffocating in his trouser pocket since morning.

'We'll make a fire and we'll roast him ... Who was that fellow ... I know ... Finn Mac Comhill who ate of the salmon of knowledge ... We'll be the same,' and easing the rod down he watches for the tell-tale ripples, the rings of water in the space above the fish's nostrils.

He was acting like he acted with visitors, a spiral of gaiety that was sometimes short-lived and often followed by some argument about horses or the exclusivity of the family motto. Might before right, that was his.

'Go on ... Get the fire going,' he said and drew himself backwards in a mimicry of someone tugging at a formidable weight.

'We'll cook it at home,' she said, persisting in the game.

'We'll cook it here,' he said, and with his free hand did a shoo in her direction to get her moving, to gather kindling and bank the fire with the strewn turf that lay around like consignments of mauled pampooties.

'Eureka ... Eureka,' he said and told the world that either he would break that fish or that fish would break him. On impulse then he decided to let the bucko stew a bit, and dropping the rod he wedged the metal case under a stone, then searched for cigarettes which he hadn't brought, said 'blast, blast', then came behind her where she was bent down lifting the burnt logs among the cinders from a recent fire.

'Daytrippers,' he said.

'Yes. Daytrippers.'

'I wonder why they came in here.'

'To see the scenery.'

'You can see scenery anywhere but you can't get as lonesome a place as this.'

He asked her to try and guess what those daytrippers might have eaten.

'Oh ... Anything ... Hard-boiled eggs ... Potatoes.'

'And after the spuds comes the strawberries,' he says and starts then to feel the stuff of her dress, pinching the bodice underneath it. In the instance of his doing it, she thought she had always known that it would happen, or that it had happened, this, a re-enactment of a petrified time. To impede him she stood up and made fidgety bustly movements, remarking that they had better be getting back, pretending not to notice the snapping of the elastic, his jesting with it, allowing it to snap back and forth, jesting of flesh and ruched thread, then not that at all, a hand on the gusset, his splayed hand lifting her up and off, like it was the swing boats, going out, out, a sherbety feeling, out into the cumuli of space.

'Is that nice?'

'I don't know.'

'Is that nicer?'

'I don't know.'

'What are little girls made of?'

'I don't know.'

'Sugar and spice and all things nice -- say it, say it, Mary.'

'Sugar ... and spice ... and ... and ...' the voice growing pipey and the mountains and sky bumping into one another.

'Say it ... Say it.'

'We'll lose our fish,' she says.

'He has the worm ... He's OK, come,' he says, the voice softer now, hiving up her dress and walking her backwards, his arms cumbent so that she has to droop on them, her eye catching an old Ovaltine tin with a picture of a lady with a saffron mantilla, veering her away from the light, onto a cushiony incline with a ring of gorse above it, his figure falling through the air, an apotheosis descending down into a secrecy where there was only them, him and her. Darkness then, a weight of darkness except for one splotch of sunlight on his shoulder and all the differing motions, of water, of earth, of body, moving as one, on a windless day. Not a sound of a bird. An empty place, a place cut off from every place else and her body too, the knowing part of her body getting separated from what was happening down there.

It does not hurt if you say it does not hurt. It does not hurt if you are not you. Criss-cross waxen sheath, uncrissing, uncrossing. Mush. Wet, different wets. His essence, hers, their two essences one. O quenched and empty world. An eternity of time, then a shout, a chink of light, the ground easing back up, gorse prickles on her scalp and nothing ever the same again and a feeling as of having half-died.

Her pink canvas shoe had fallen into the water and she lifted it funnel-wise to free it of ooze. He looked at her, a probing look, looked through her as if she were parchment and then half-laughed.

'What would your mother say ... Dirty little thing.

He crosses to the lake, wading through the thick lattice of bulrushes and she thinks he is washing now in the brackenish water, swabbing himself with the saucer leaf of the water-lily and that on him will linger the sweet lotus of that flower.

Everything is drying, coagulating. It is a plasma. She will wash in the river, wash and rewash and pleat herself back together. She will throw the knickers far away down in the fairy fort. She does not know what has happened. And there is no one that she can ask. An image floated up then to startle her, something she had once seen and thought of as being quite harmless; it was a cake at a party which seemed to be uncut but when she brought her face up close to it, every piece had been severed, every severed piece, side by side, a wicked decoy.

Climbing the roped rickety gate that leads from the bog road to the outer road she wobbles, grips a tassel of flowering dock, and the coral seeds crushed to shreds she puts in her pocket. Only they will know. No one else will ever know.

Except that they will.

In the City far away men of bristling goatee beards, men of serious preoccupied countenances, move through the great halls, corporeal figures of knowledge and gravity, the white of their wigs changing colour as they pass under the rotunda of livid light, ribs of yellow hair, smarting, becoming phosphorescent, powerful men, men with a swagger, a character personified by the spill of the gown or the angle of a coiffed wig, their juniors a few paces behind them laden with briefs and ledgers, the whole paraphernalia of the law in motion, some already at the bench, others walking slowly to the appointed courts, men of principle who know nothing of the road or the road's soggy secret will one day be called to adjudicate upon it, for all is always known, nothing is secret, all is known and scriven upon the tablet of time.

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Down by the River 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Maenad More than 1 year ago
Set in modern day Ireland, Mary, the central character, is forced by the guilt of her mother's death to abandon the haven of a Catholic boarding school and return home to her father's incestuous relations. The scandal evolves from incest to a botched abortion attempt and Mary's case is brought to court.Edna O'Brien has a strong command of describing mental anguish, but ends the novel in a contrived miscarriage, instead of informing the reader of the court's decision.