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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

"Rosaries and ovaries. I don't know which does the most damage to this country."


A medical doctor speaks these words in the 29th chapter "Dr. Tom," of 74 scenic chapters in Edna O'Brien's 265 page Down by the River. The cinematic episodes vary in length from one page to several pages, with O'Brien's characters both fleeting figures and those who reappear. I stopped counting them at 30, which is not a critical comment. Only the protagonist, Mary MacNamara, appears in the novel from beginning to end, along with her father, James. I should say… almost to the end for James. That he impregnated his daughter after his wife Bridget's death is not a surprise for the reader. The novel's first chapter has father and daughter down by the river, where his first rape of her occurs. But please take note: O'Brien has made James a layered character, not a one-dimensional monster. Her real judgment she saves for Irish society.


The novel's narration is omniscient from beginning to end, as if the author is Mother Ireland, creating one character after another in the West of the country where she was born. Her literary host includes Father Church, Judges of the High Court, Male Guards (police), and Irish citizens. The latter are subjects of time and place, male and female, whose voices are subsumed by Non mutare: We shall not change. This is not true, however, of every character. Yet the loudest, shrillest voices belong to those who would protect the fetus and punish the victim of rape. How apt for our own times and the current Supreme Court, which will again argue Roe versus Wade.


Down by the River, published in 1997, appeared five years after the explosive case of a 14 year-old-rape victim (and her parents), who were forced to return to Ireland before the fetus could be legally aborted in England. Once home, the girl attempted suicide. O'Brien's omniscient narrator, mincing no words, says of protagonist Mary's return from England: "The Attorney General had to act over some little slut about to pour piss over the nation's breast." Other memorable declarations come from persons who think they have never put a wrong foot anywhere. "Holy Christ, I'd send the lot of them (scum) down the mine and dynamite them."


Is there not something deeply frightening and dangerous about a mass of humanity that either cannot or will not grasp paradoxical thinking? Down by the River has Roisin, an evangelical female crusader for the unborn (dried and blackened in zeal like a Raisin, in my opinion) who fights from early in the novel to the end for the fetus, never listening to the frightened thing that flails within herself. This character reminded me of evangelicals who assert that Trump is an imperfect messenger of God, sent to save the unborn, while ignoring God's decree in Genesis that we be stewards of the earth.


What I appreciated personally about O'Brien's novel was having the following memory churned to shore from a forgotten sea. In the late 70s, mother of two children, teaching 100-150 high school students a day, always tired, often insensitive, I experienced little reaction to what I heard one evening in a women's consciousness raising group that met weekly. One member was from Ireland and the youngest of four sisters. Her Irish father worked all week and half-day on Saturdays. Only on Saturday afternoon did he take a bath; and the mother always sent a daughter upstairs with their father's clean clothing. As a daughter reached puberty, she was sent away to school. Then the next in line took over. No mention in the family of what happened each Saturday in that bathroom, though the mother knew. C., the last daughter, who eventually emigrated to the USA, told the story without explicit details. But she described her convent school, where nuns literally put the girls to bed at night, pulling the sheets tightly over their bodies, especially their chests, then securing the sheets beneath the mattress. "Our arms had to be folded across our chests and still be there in the morning." After reading Down by the River, I recognized my insensitivity that evening, ignoring the awfulness of what this woman experienced with her father and focusing on her story from the convent.

Franz Kafka wrote: "Literature should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within." It could be Edna O'Brien's mantra, too.

Next week: My last post on this remarkable writer and a novel based on another real incident.

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