cover image Down by the River

Down by the River

Edna O'Brien. Farrar Straus Giroux, $23 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-374-14327-5

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)