cover image House of Splendid Isolation

House of Splendid Isolation

Edna O'Brien. Farrar Straus Giroux, $21 (232pp) ISBN 978-0-374-17309-8

History frames this ambitious, intermittently beautiful 14th novel by Irish spellbinder O'Brien (The Country Girls Trilogy). ``History is everywhere. It seeps into the soil,'' begins the author, as the ghost of a dead child drifts in a garden, peering through the windows of a decaying country house. The story centers on a tormented encounter between young IRA fugitive/killer McGreevy and his hostage--rich, reclusive, middle-aged Josie O'Meara. Both have been widowed by the protracted ``troubles.'' Josie, a former barmaid, who once did a stint as a domestic in Brooklyn, reminisces before and during her ``captivity'' on her advantageous but flawed marriage. Jamie--whose death she inadvertently caused--had been a landed man, a vulgar wastrel with a zest for horses and hard drink. Josie dreams nostalgically of the old bittersweet years in her stately lakeside house and her ardent affair with a priest (graphically betrayed by a corset left in the grass). Less successful are the novel's bristling, movie-like scenes of McGreevy tearing through the underbrush, clashing with comrades, eluding the fretful police. Josie's relationship with McGreevy proves oddly factitious and ideological (less vividly realized than her redolent past), while the tale's bizarre denouement is gratuitous. Powerful, however, is the elegiac voice on themes of womanly love, the tale's psychological acuity and the re-creation of a haunted landscape. In these respects, O'Brien still works her Celtic enchantments. (June)