Saints and Sinners is a collection of Edna O’Brien’s recent short stories. I’ve read two of her novels—Wild Decembers (1999) and In the Light of Evening (2006)—so I knew that she has not a shred of romanticism about her native Ireland: her tales are earthy, devastating, filled with human cruelty and brutality. But they’re also sensitive, incisive stories about people who struggle (and very often fail) to understand how to live and love.
A short story is an opportunity to appreciate an author’s themes, skills, and artistry in a little burst. I’d hoped that O’Brien’s stories would be as compelling as her novels, but in this I was more disappointed than delighted. “Black Flower” is a murky tale about an art teacher at a prison who runs off with one of her students (seemingly an IRA operative) after his release. “Shovel Kings” and “Inner Cowboy” concern hapless victims, but both stories felt manipulative, trying too hard to be affecting. Others, like “Madame Cassandra” and “Manhattan Medley” were boring—it’s not a good sign when you skim a short story. My favorite was “Green Georgette,” in which a young girl recounts—in meticulous dear-diary detail—the visit she and her mother pay to a woman of higher social status. “The china tea set was exquisite, with matching slop bowl, sugar bowl, and jug. The tea pot was like a little kettle and had a cane handle. But the eats were not that thrilling.”
The short story form seems too constricting for O’Brien, as if she doesn’t have enough space and time to lure the reader into her tale. And, to be honest, I think some of the stories seem tired, as if she didn’t really have all that much to say. If I return to her work, I’ll try the Country Girls trilogy, which launched her career and has been widely praised. (When the books were first published in England, in 1960s, they were both banned and actually burned in Ireland. Always a good sign!)