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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Thank you, Edna, for another slosh in turbulent seas

Updated: Nov 25

Edna O'Brien's 2002 novel, In the Forest, was on the "free" book table years ago. Disheartened to see it there, I questioned why a $24.00 literary hardcover by a fine writer had been discarded. The answer was obvious from where I stood and could see the library's shelves. They bulged with best-sellers that displayed garish covers to match tawdry contents.


Although my Edna O'Brien course was scheduled for last May, it finally occurred in October. Yet the uncertainty of it happening kept me from reading every work O'Brien has written. It turned out I was lucky to have found the discarded O'Brien novel. Reading it recently helped me see the mythological basis of The Little Red Chairs and to regard the novel as more brilliant than I already thought it was. In this 2015 novel, O'Brien offers "transcendence" at the end of her protagonist's journey. This contrasts with the 2002 novel, which ends in the dark forest with a demonic Pooka Man, the malevolent Michen O'Kane.


As in Down by the River (see last week's blog), O'Brien uses an actual, highly publicized criminal case as the basis for In the Forest. In this novel, and in the later The Little Red Chairs, there is a curious reversal with the 'stranger comes to town'. In the more recent novel, the Beast of Bosnia arrives one night in a County Clare village, mystifying residents and providing momentary diversion for village ennui, until the stranger's real identity is revealed. In contrast, the stranger of In the Forest is Eily, a bearer of light, a young mother with a child. The locals, however, see her as a hippie, refer to her as a "blow-in." The other arrival to the town, O'Kane, is not a stranger but native born, a son of the soil. In twenty artful pages of backstory, Edna O'Brien gives the reader O'Kane's warped childhood. No reform schools have changed this "child of the village," who is for the community a personification of evil, labeled a Kinderschreck by a German resident. It is inevitable that O'Kane's demonic voices will be acted upon; that Eily, her three-year-old son, and a local priest will be his victims. In the Forest is a disturbing novel. So is The Little Red Chairs, but by the end O'Brien gives her reader a re-enactment of Midsummer Night's Dream and leaves her reader with a truthful, hopeful, creative light, that "in a dark time, the eye begins to see."



In the Forest made me recall being a stranger in a small German village in 1980. I remember writing home to friends in Napa that I was Joseph Conrad's The N of Narcissus, substituting the village's name for Conrad's last word in his title. Why do I say this? I was distrusted and stared at for being a non-German speaking woman from the US of A. And during the first two months of living there, I encountered a deaf and disturbed youth in the forest. In a matter of three days, he molested a young girl, sexually assaulted me, and raped a woman in a nearby village. All three of us attended his later trial. What struck me then, and struck me again while reading O'Brien's novel, was a reminder of the silence and passivity that allow the Kinderschreck's existence. In the Forest, the villagers wonder what the free-spirited young Eily and her child are doing in a cottage in the forest, living in the very spot the delinquent O'Kane occupied before being sent off to multiple reform schools. And in a German village, I wondered how my assailant had been allowed to roam the forests, masturbating wherever he went, deaf and alone despite a large family. I had seen the mother at the Kaiserslautern police station the night of my assailant's arrest. She was the most frozen and expressionless woman I've seen in my life. The young man's father was a brute who leered at me whenever our paths crossed in the tiny village, and a younger brother sneered and swore at me until the day I took off like a madwoman and chased him. He never bothered me again. Yet I remained that American woman too stupid to know she should not have been walking alone in the forest.


A village of suppressed silence: a man found hanging from a tree one morning on a hill. Another day, a man with his head submerged in a fishpond in his backyard. Someone in a nearby village spreading himself on tracks for the next train. Although I could not speak German, I read whispers and gestures, the way bodies speak loudly. During our first spring there, a parade, our youngest daughter on the kindergarten's float, the village's main street filled with residents, a jolly event until a troop of German Shepherds appeared like mules leading a wagon. On it stood a man, his right arm extended, a réplique of Hitler: the mustache, thin hair, familiar uniform. Twitters from many in the crowd, silence from others, and stares in our direction. Our daughter was the only American in the village kindergarten. Later I would learn about the place where the breeders of the German Shepherds met, old believers of the Third Reich, meeting together above the village. The recognition of this was hard to take in, that we were living with those who, thirty years after WW2, still worshipped an evil, malevolent demigod whose perverted beliefs caused the deaths of countless millions. I feel something similar now with our Pooka Man.


Next week: The discovery in 2005, after years abroad, of Marilynn Robinson


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