I’ve always meant to, but other books were always scuttling to the top of my pile. Mainly, I think, it’s been a problem of titles. Her most recent novel, blandly dubbed, “The Light of Evening” screams quiet fiction (as do her other titles “Wild Decembers” and “In the Forest”). As beautiful writing can only go so far in my mind, most quiet fiction bores me to tears. So when I got this book in the mail, I put O’Brien (again!) near the bottom of my pile. A title and cover so quiet and understated that for weeks I thought it was a book of poetry awaiting my attention. As a writer, I hate to be wrong about most things, but I love to be wrong about literature. So here it is: I was wrong. I love quiet fiction — that is, when it’s done well.
“The Light of Evening” explores the intimate, yet distant and fractured relationship between a mother and daughter. Dilly, a rural Irish mother, is confined to a hospital bed in Dublin for the majority of the book, doing nothing but writing to and waiting for her daughter to visit. Eleanora, the daughter, is a famous author, traipsing the globe with various lovers. She is reluctant to return to Ireland, where her work is despised for making her neighbors and countrymen look like simpletons. The guilt of her success at the expense of her heritage only seems to surface when she sees her elderly mother. So there is the heart of the story: a waiting game as two women, who believe themselves to be so different, push at pull at one another through letters, longing, and guilt.
The larger plot of the book involves the inheritance of Dilly’s once-grand property called Rusheen, which has been coercively willed to Dilly’s son. She wants to leave the property to Eleanora, although the scheming son will do anything to stop her from changing the will. Terence, the son, and his wife are completely flat and uninterestingly evil characters whose only narrative purpose is to act as obstacles to this wish. Fortunately, their presence is very minimal and this unnecessary plot takes a distant backseat to the real tension between Dilly and Eleanora.
What is so compelling about this mother-daughter relationship is that it is almost completely played out through letters, memories, and thoughts. The two women only meet once in the book, for about 10 minutes, during which they really have no idea what to say to each other. But what they don’t know, and what we come to understand as readers, is that mother and daughter are not so different as they believe. Flashbacks to Dilly’s brief residence in America in the 1920s harmonize well with Eleanora’s modern-day life. I use the word “harmonize” because, different as these experiences are, they also inform one another. For example, Dilly’s life as a young house servant to a wealthy New York couple is, at the same time, so different from and similar to Eleanora’s struggles in her failed marriage to an upper-class Londoner. Heartbreakingly, the only way these women can think to traverse the divide they perceive between themselves is through the mail: letters and gifts of sweaters too small.
Quiet books are usually called so because the joy we get from them is in the small things: a perfect emotional chord, the description of a properly-set table, the subtle power of emotional restraint. A handful of these things done well makes a quiet novel. But when everything attains this kind of perfection, silence is impossible. Reading, I found myself pulled along by descriptions of a cooked goose dropped on the floor as much as by the main characters’ dramas. A story like this, after you put it down, gets louder over the days, and you find yourself returning to it after moving on to the next book. A few days ago, I would have been surprised to hear that O’Brien’s first book, “The Country Girls” was banned by Irish censors and called “a smear on Irish womanhood.” But now, with her words still buzzing in my mind, that kind of sly power, coming from her, seems about right.
“The Light of Evening,” published by Houghton Mifflin; pp. 294 pp.; $25