Wild Decembers

Wild Decembers

3.0 2
by Edna O'Brien

See All Formats & Editions

"With a mood akin to WUTHERING HEIGHTS—and indeed the spirit of Emily Bronte" (Irish Times), Edna O'Brien's critically acclaimed novel WILD DECEMBERS charts the quick but sure demise of relations between "the warring sons of warring sons." Here in the countryside of western Ireland, "ancient feuds, romantic passions, and misguided ideas of fidelity blend together


"With a mood akin to WUTHERING HEIGHTS—and indeed the spirit of Emily Bronte" (Irish Times), Edna O'Brien's critically acclaimed novel WILD DECEMBERS charts the quick but sure demise of relations between "the warring sons of warring sons." Here in the countryside of western Ireland, "ancient feuds, romantic passions, and misguided ideas of fidelity blend together in . . . [a] heartbreaking story" (Wall Street Journal) leavened by the human comedy of which O'Brien rarely loses sight. A sister, a brother, and a stranger converge in a classic triangle, proceeding inevitably "toward a climax that is Irish to the quick, violent and sad and, in a strange way, beautiful. Just like the novel itself" (Washington Post).

WILD DECEMBERS is a triumphant work from a writer who wears well the mantle of her Irish forebears and yet who, with each new novel, breaks new ground all her own. In this, her latest, "readers could not ask for a more profoundly satisfying book" (Boston Herald).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"EDNA O'BRIEN writes novels like Irish ballads. Elliptical, rhythmic, with a crooning yet astringent lyricism, they glory in their long, slow gallop toward doom. The dark fate unfurling like a nightmare makes them hard to read, and hard to stop reading. "Wild Decembers," her latest, is typical." Newsday
Stephanie Zacharek
You can find writers who are just as fierce and fearless, or as attuned to language, or as sensitive to delicate secrets. But very rarely do you find them all in one package. Wild Decembers is a smallish book with greatness in its veins, and if its title conjures up the depth of winter, at its core it feels like the full-on rush of springtime.
Robert Allen Papinchak
A bold and tragic love story, Wild Decembers resonates with the rich dark melancholy that pervades the Irish spirit.
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
Edna O'Brien's "beautifully written" latest charts the quick and critical demise of relations between two brothers - the warring sons of warring sons - in the countryside of her native Ireland, with "remarkable" characterization and an "enveloping" story. Some of our booksellers said, "I've always wanted to see Ireland, and now I feel as though I have!" For others, "If you love Ireland and enjoy needing a dictionary every third sentence, then this is the book for you." "More Irish misery."
Scott Tobias
The introduction of a tractor to a remote mountainside farm in Ireland opens Edna O'Brien's passionate, exquisitely wrought new novel, Wild Decembers. The book is set in contemporary times, but from the way the characters stare at the machine in slack-jawed amazement, it may as well be nearly a century earlier, which indicates how little life has changed. At the tractor's helm is Mick Bugler, a handsome and charming man who has arrived from the modern world to claim inherited acreage from his recently deceased father. His efforts to take over his part of the mountain meet powerful resistance from his neighbor, the steadfastly antiquated Joseph Brennan, who was taught early on that "fields mean more than fields, more than life and more than death, too." Soon, their strained niceties are dropped altogether, as Bugler and Brennan assume their roles in a family conflict that has raged for generations. But the major wrinkle in this scenario is Brennan's shy and dutiful sister Breege, who finds herself drawn to her brother's rival even as she's fully aware of the possible consequences. Wild Decembers owes a great debt to such classic romantic tragedies as Wuthering Heights, and O'Brien acknowledges as much by lifting its title from Remembrance, Emily Brontë's anguished poem of doomed love, told from "memory's rapturous pain." At times, O'Brien's prose overreaches for showy effect, but she acutely understands and sympathizes with all three central characters, whose actions, however destructive, are rooted in noble intentions. Like many Irish novels, Wild Decembers features a gallery of colorful villagers--two devious sisters who seek out men to seduce and extort, a haughty dame who spends most of her time getting primped in the salon, an old gossip with a knack for stirring up conflict--who contribute to the hostilities. O'Brien admires and fears the harsh majesty of rural Ireland the way Annie Proulx treats her native Montana, and with same dread of inevitability, too. With a trio this volatile, it may be easy to guess where the story is heading, but O'Brien displays insight and eloquence in telling it.
The Onion AV Club
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The poetic telling of this entertaining yet tragic tale, set in the countryside of Western Ireland, is rendered with such lush detail that you can practically smell the peat hearth. O'Brien's novel chronicles the lives of Joseph Brennan and his beloved sister Breege, lives that are profoundly changed by the arrival of a new neighbor, an Aussie named Mick Bugler. He has moved to Ireland to claim his inheritance--land that Joseph considers part of "my mountain." The novelty of the newcomer soon wears off and gives way to feelings of confusion and love on Breege's end--and of paranoid suspicion on the part of Joseph--as echoes of an ancient blood feud resonate into madness. Bertish's voice perfectly complements the text; she tells the tale as if it were her own. And indeed, when the narration switches from first person to third, her voice becomes interchangeable with Breege's. Able to glean subtleties of accent and nuance of cadence, Bertish's talent renders all of the characters utterly convincing. Based on the Houghton Mifflin hardcover (Forecasts, Jan. 31). (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Brooke Allen
With the instincts of an orchestra conductor, she builds from muted subtleties to crescendos of linguistic color…With grace and infinite sympathy, Wild Decembers encapsulates the afflictions of a culture with the afflictions of a particular doomed family.
New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
O'Brien's meditation on the ache of desire—whether for love, or for turf, or for what in the thick of things looks like justice—is both a lesson and a revelation.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt


Cloontha it is called-a locality within the bending of an arm. A few scattered houses, the old fort, lime-dank and jabbery and from the great whooshing belly of the lake between grassland and callow land a road, sluicing the little fortresses of ash and elder, a crooked road to the mouth of the mountain. Fields that mean more than fields, more than life and more than death too. In the summer months calves going suck suck suck, blue dribble threading from their black lips, their white faces stark as clowns. Hawthorn and whitethorn, boundaries of dreaming pink. Byroad and bog road. The bronze gold grasses in a tacit but unremitting sway. Listen. Shiver of wild grass and cluck of wild fowl. Quickening.

Fathoms deep the frail and rusted shards, the relics of battles of the long ago, and in the basins of limestone, quiet in death, the bone babes and the bone mothers, the fathers too. The sires. The buttee men and the long-legged men who hacked and hacked and into the torn breathing soil planted a first potato crop, the diced tubers that would be the bread of life until the fungus came.

According to the annals it happened on Our Lady's Eve. The blight came in the night and wandered over the fields, so that by morning the upright stalks were black ribbons of rot. Slow death for man and beast. A putrid pall over the landscape, hungry marching people meek and mindless, believing it had not struck elsewhere. Except that it had. Death at every turn. The dead faces yellow as parchment, the lips a liquorice black from having gorged on the sweet poisonous stuff, the apples of death.

They say the enemy came in the night, butthe enemy can come at any hour, be it dawn or twilight, because the enemy is always there and these people know it, locked in a tribal hunger that bubbles in the blood and hides out on the mountain, an old carcass waiting to rise again, waiting to roar again, to pit neighbour against neighbour and dog against dog in the crazed and phantom lust for a lip of land. Fields that mean more than fields, fields that translate into nuptials into blood; fields lost, regained, and lost again in that fickle and fractured sequence of things; the sons of Oisin, the sons of Conn and Connor, the sons of Abraham, the sons of Seth, the sons of Ruth, the sons of Delilah, the warring sons of warring sons cursed with that same irresistible thrall of madness which is the designate of living man, as though he had to walk back through time and place, back to the voiding emptiness to repossess ground gone for ever.

Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape. A new sound and a new machine, its squat front the colour of baked brick, the ridges of the big wheels scummed in muck, wet muck and dry muck, leaving their maggoty trails. It was the first tractor on the mountain and its arrival would be remembered and relayed; the day, the hour of evening, and the way crows circled above it, blackening the sky, fringed, soundless, auguring. There were birds always; crows, magpies, thrushes, skylarks, but rarely like that, so many and so massed. It was early autumn, one of those still autumn days, several fields emptied of hay, the stubble a sullied gold, hips and haws on the briars and a wild dog rose which because of its purple hue had been named after the blood of Christ-Sangria Jesu.

At the top of the hill it slowed down, then swerved into a farmyard, stopping short of the cobbles and coming to rest on a grassy incline under a hawthorn tree. Bugler, the driver, ensconced inside his glass booth, waved to Breege, the young woman who, taken so by surprise, raised the tin can which she was holding in a kind of awkward salute. To her, the machine with smoke coming out of the metal chimney was like a picture of the Wild West.

Already their yard was in a great commotion, their dog Goldie yelping, not knowing which part to bite first, hens and ducks converging on it, startled and curious, and coming from an outhouse her brother, Joseph, with a knife in his hand, giving him a rakish look.

"I'm stuck," Bugler said, smiling. He could have been driving it for years so assured did he seem up there, his power and prowess seeming to precede him as he stepped down and lifted his soft felt hat courteously. Might he leave it for a day or two until he got the hang of the gears. He pointed to the manual that was on the dashboard, a thin booklet, tattered and with some pages folded where a previous owner had obviously consulted it often.

"Oh, no bother ... No bother," Joseph said, overcordial. The two men stood in such extreme contrast to one another, Joseph in old clothes like a scarecrow and Bugler in a scarlet shirt, leather gaiters over his trousers, and a belt with studs that looked lethal. He was recently home, having inherited a farm from an uncle, and the rumour spread that he was loaded with money and intended to reclaim much of his marshland. Because of having worked on a sheep station he had been nicknamed the Shepherd. A loner, he had not gone into a single house and had not invited anyone to his. The Crock, the craftiest of all the neighbours, who went from house to house every night, gleaning and passing on bits of gossip, had indeed hobbled up there, but was not let past the tumbling-down front porch. He was proud to report that it was no better than a campsite, and in sarcasm, he referred to it as the Congo. Bugler was a dark horse. When he went to a dance it was always forty or fifty miles away, but the Crock had reason to know that women threw themselves at him, and now he was in their yard, the sun causing glints of red in his black beard and sideburns. It was Breege's first sensing of him. Up to then he had been a tall fleeting figure, apparition-like, so eager to master his surroundings that he rarely used a gate or a stile, simply leapt over them. Her brother and him had had words over cattle that broke out. The families, though distantly related, had feuds that went back hundreds of years and by now had hardened into a dour sullenness. The wrong Joseph most liked to relate was of a Bugler ancestor, a Henry, trying to grab a corner of a field which abutted onto theirs and their uncle Paddy impaling him on a road and putting a gun to his head. The upshot was that Paddy, like any common convict, had to emigrate to Australia, where he excelled himself as a boxer, got the red belts. Other feuds involved women, young wives from different provinces who could not agree and who screamed at each other like warring tinkers. Yet now both men were affable, that overaffability that seeks to hide any embarrassment. Joseph was the talkative one, expressing disbelief and wonder as each and every feature of the tractor was explained to him, the lever, the gears, the power shaft which, as Bugler said, could take the pants off a man or, worse, even an arm or a leg; then joyous whistles as Bugler recited its many uses-ploughing, rotating, foddering, making silage, and of course getting from A to B.

"It's some yoke," Joseph said, patting the side wing.

"If you ask me, she's a he," Bugler said, recalling the dangers, men in tractors to which they were unaccustomed having to be pulled out of bogholes in the dead of night, and a farmer in the Midlands driving over a travelling woman thinking he had caught a bough. Her tribespeople kept coming day after day strewing elder branches in wild lament.

They moved then to farming matters, each enquiring how many cattle the other had, although they knew well, and swapped opinions about the big new marts, the beef barons in their brown overalls and jobbers' boots.

"How times have changed," Joseph said overdramatically, and went on to quote from an article he had recently read, outlining the scientific way to breed pigs. The boar had to be kept well away from the sow so as to avoid small litters, but, nevertheless, had to be adjacent to her for the sake of smell, which of course was not the same as touch.

"Not a patch on touch ... Nothing to beat touch," one said, and the other confirmed it.

"Would you like a go on it?" Bugler said then to each of them.

"I'll pass," Joseph said, but added that Breege would. She shrunk back from them, looked at the machine, and then climbed up on it because all she wanted was to have got up and down again and vanish. Through the back of her thin blouse one hook of her brassiere was broken and Bugler would see that. A red colour ran up and down her cheeks as if pigment were being poured on them. It was like being up on a throne, with the fields and the low walls very insignificant, and she felt foolish.

"You're okay ... You're okay ... It won't run away with you," Bugler said softly, and leaned in over her. Their breaths almost merged. She thought how different he seemed now, how conciliatory, how much less abrupt and commanding. His eyes, the colour of dark treacle, were as deep as lakes, brown eyes, wounded-looking, as if a safety pin had been dragged over them in infancy. He saw her agitation, saw that she was uneasy, and to save the moment he told her brother that the bloke he bought the tractor from was a right oddball.

"How come?" Joseph said.

"He said that if I couldn't start it, I was to find a child, get the child to put its foot on the clutch, but tell it to be ready to jump the moment the engine started."

"You won't find a child around here," Joseph said, and in the silence they looked as if they were expecting something to answer back. Nothing did. It was as if they were each suspended and staring out at the fields, brown and khaki, and nondescript in the gathering dusk; fields over which many had passed, soldiers, pilgrims, journeymen, children too; fields on which their lives would leave certain traces followed by some dismay, then forgetfulness.

"You'll come in for the tea," Joseph said to lighten things.

"I won't ... I have jobs to do," Bugler said, and turning to Breege, thinking that in some way he owed her an apology, he said, "If ever you want supplies brought from the town, you know who to ask."

Meet the Author

EDNA O’BRIEN is the author of eighteen works of fiction, including the New York Times Notable Books and Book Sense picks Wild Decembers and In the Forest, and Lantern Slides, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 2002 she won the National Medal for Fiction from the National Arts Club. An honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, O’Brien was born and grew up in Ireland and has lived in London for many years.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Wild Decembers 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Joseph Brennan and his sister Breege have always lived in Cloontha, Ireland just like generations of Brennans before them. Joseph remains a bachelor because no woman can compete with his love for the land. Their close relationship changes when the Brennan siblings meet Australian Mick Bugler, who has recently inherited a nearby farm from a deceased relative.

Joseph and Mick initially get along quite well until the ancestral dispute between their families over land drives a wedge between them. However, Breege is attracted to the handsome newcomer who admits he has a fiancee waiting for him in Down Under. As she falls in love with the Australian, she tries to reconcile the differences between Mick and her beloved brother, who will do anything to keep his innocent sister from being hurt by the ¿Despoiler¿.

WILD DECEMEBR is an excellent character-driven piece that will thrill fans of relationship dramas. The splendid story line is entertaining, as Ireland seems so vividly alive. The three prime protagonists are fully developed so the audience understands their motives even as Edna O¿Brien keeps her plot consistent to their individualism and their interrelationships. Readers who enjoy an Irish relationship drama will gain immense pleasure from Ms. O¿Brien¿s novel.

Harriet Klausner

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Do not buy this book. It really is terrible. Choppy writing. Plot that you know what will happen before you get to the end. Just bad bad writing.