Home > 1990, 20th Century, Irish Literature, Novel > The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien – Disorienting

The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien – Disorienting

The House Of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien (1994) French title: La maison du splendide isolement.

History is everywhere. It seeps into the soil, the sub-soil. Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood. A house remembers. An outhouse remembers. A people ruminate. The tale differs with the teller.

I’m terribly late with this billet since I read The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien in June. Fortunately, I have some notes and some quotes because I don’t have clear memories about this novel set in Ireland. It’s blurred with an overall impression of Irish landscapes, customs and intricate politics.

Josie is an old lady who lives alone in a big and isolated house and who mulls over her past. McGreevy is an IRA activist who is hiding from the police. He decides to invite himself at Josie’s house. He “kidnaps” her house and imposes his presence. The two will start an odd relationship.

Josie was married to an alcoholic, their marriage fell apart quite fast. They lived like strangers. Her marriage was a failure and muddied by her inability to adapt to her new life. On one side, we see her reflections on her life, now that she’s old and fragile. On the other side, we see McGreevy’s life, his actions as an IRA activist. We see him during missions, and hiding.

When I write this, you know about the setting and the two main characters but you still have no idea about the atmosphere of the book.

Edna O’Brien takes us back and forth in time and there were not enough time stamps in the book for me. I was lost. I got lost in time, I got lost in Irish politics.

Josie is not a character you’d like to be friend with. She’s tough and indirectly responsible for her husband’s death. She married too young and was not very mature at the time, even if she had spent several years in Brooklyn. She should have grown up there but didn’t. Edna O’Brien’s mother had the same life journey: she used to live in Brooklyn, working as a servant for a rich family. She came back to Ireland to start a family and married a peasant who was alcoholic and violent. Since Edna O’Brien was born in 1930, that Josie is really old in the book, I guessed that Josie was born around 1910.

The novel is also full of references to the fight of the IRA, the consequences on civilians, the exactions on both sides. Honestly, you need to be Irish to fully understand this book. O’Brien shows the violence on both sides and tries to give a voice to the IRA and to the Guarda. To be honest, there were too many subtitles that went way over my head because I’m clueless about Irish history but I could feel the helplessness and the bitterness in O’Brien’s tone.

The way they train them is probably macabre. To be invincible. No chinks. Out in isolated places shooting targets, reading up, mettling themselves, taking the oath. Once they cross that divide they’re never the same again, like iron put into a fire. They cannot return to their old shape or their old ways. The saddest bit is that we’re the same stock, the same faith, we speak the same tongue and yet we don’t. Language to each of us is a braille that the other cannot know. Words like justice or love or bread turned inside out or outside in.

She seems to tell us: how will we move forward? How can we go past this? Will we ever find peace? Will this violence ever stop?

I also noticed the constant presence of religion in the novel and its power. It appears at the oddest times, like here, during an ambush where someone gets killed:

‘I got him,’ he says to Ned who is trembling beside him. ‘We should say an act of contrition.’

And later:

‘We’ll get an ambulance over here,’ the sergeant says, getting into his own car. ‘And a priest,’ Ned says as they whiz past him,

I have trouble reconciling the idea of being a fervent Catholic, which supposes that you do not kill people and these off-handed comments, about asking for forgiveness for the murder and have a priest come over to bless the body. What is wrong with them? It seems so twisted and I couldn’t help thinking that the Church covered murderers on both sides. It didn’t endear me to the institution.

To lighten the mood, I’ll mention the French words and expressions I found here and there. I found this quote amusing:

‘Canapés …’ someone else shouts and the second clue is written into place. ‘What the hell are canapés … Are they a fruit?’ ‘You’ve never heard of canapés … You’re a bog man.’ ‘They’re things with things on them … My favourite is a prawn …

Indeed, we don’t use the word canapé anymore for that. The canapés that you eat at a cocktail party…we call them toasts! (or bouchée) A canapé is usually a couch. So, don’t worry if a French wants to sit on a canapé instead of eating it.

French fun apart, what’s the verdict about The House of Splendid Isolation? Same issue as for Dubliners. I wondered if you needed to be Irish to really enjoy it…Since I’m not, I found it frustrating and sometimes disturbing. If anyone has read it, I’d be interested to discuss it with you.

  1. October 2, 2019 at 2:54 am

    I haven’t read this one, but I’ve got a copy of her new one, Girl. I’m expecting that to be disturbing too…

    Like

    • October 2, 2019 at 1:13 pm

      This was my first.
      I can’t say it was a success among our Book Club members.

      Like

      • October 2, 2019 at 3:13 pm

        Oh dear. Well, I’ll see how I get on…

        Like

  2. October 2, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    I have not read this novel but have read a collection of O’Brien’s short stories. This was in Lyon – it is in the main branch of the library!

    The collection was about half stories about adult women dealing with love affairs and other aspects of the Sexual Revolution. They were explicitly feminist, and not Irish in any obvious way. They were often set in London.

    The other half were Irish stories, always from the point of view of a child or teenager, so there were things in the story that the character did not understand. I was not alone! This was helpful. The heroine and I were in it together. Plus maybe a short story is not going to be as packed with information as the novel you read.

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    • October 4, 2019 at 8:21 pm

      It’s my first Edna O’Brien. Maybe this one is a political one.

      The issue of women and their freedom apperas through the old lady’s past. As we know, they didn’t have a lot of choice besides getting married.

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