“Wild Decembers” by Edna O'Brien

The great Irish novelist delivers a resoundingly passionate tale of land feuds and illicit love.

Topics: Books,

"Wild Decembers" by Edna O'Brien

If you need any further proof that Edna O’Brien is one of our greatest living novelists, “Wild Decembers” is it — not necessarily because it’s her best work (it probably isn’t, though I would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite) but because it shows how deftly she can pack an epic yet exceptionally delicate tale into a surprisingly small number of pages. “Wild Decembers” is a story about long-standing family feuds propagated mostly by men, and about the subtler rivalries that thrive — quietly, like malevolent deep-forest mushrooms — between women. It’s a love story and a murder ballad, dark and glistening and magically beautiful.

O’Brien has a gift for writing about country life without making it seem quirky or quaint. She’s not offering up her characters for the scrutiny of city sophisticates — she’s collapsing the distance between their lives and ours. A village dance replete with stolen kisses, a pair of oversexed and mercenary sisters who aren’t above crying “rape” if there’s money in it, a fawnlike greyhound pup who steals the hearts of every man and woman who lays eyes on him: These are the layers of detail that O’Brien banks around her narrative, bringing a time and a place and a way of life into sharp focus even as she’s unfurling any number of gossamer emotional undercurrents.

Set in western Ireland in the 1970s, “Wild Decembers” chronicles the feud between Joseph Brennan and newcomer Mick Bugler. The latter has just arrived to take possession of some family land on what Brennan considers “his” mountain; at first, Brennan is fascinated by and attracted to the hypnotic Bugler, but before long his jealousy and suspicion get the better of him. Worse yet, his younger sister Breege is beginning to drift (if not fall madly) into love with Bugler. And Bugler, who may be falling in love with her as well, is betrothed to a woman who’s due to join him in his new home in a matter of months.



The story isn’t complicated, but it runs deep. O’Brien defines the magnitude of the land feud early on, describing “fields that mean more than fields, fields that translate into nuptials into blood; fields lost, regained, and lost again in that fickle and fractured sequence of things.” O’Brien leads us by the hand through a troubling, fiery, resoundingly passionate story, and her language is an irresistible secret weapon: It isn’t wrought into poetry so much as molded into gentle curves that suggest the slope of a grassy hill or echo the rush of a wave. It cuts right to the heart of the most terrifying and exquisite human feelings without ever becoming florid or overwrought, as when Breege acknowledges what has happened to her and how it’s too late to turn away from it:

Bugler opened up some vein in me, and it is not his fault no more than it is mine. I will know him again, I will be the one to hold him when dead, the one to bury him. I know that … You can go years and years of normal life, all day, every day, milking, foddering, saying the given things, and then one day something opens in you, wild and marvellous, like the great rills that run down the mountain in the rain, rapid, jouncing, turning everything they touch into something living; a mossy log suddenly having the intent and slither of a crocodile.

You can find writers who are just as fierce and fearless, or as attuned to language, or as sensitive to delicate secrets. But very rarely do you find them all in one package. “Wild Decembers” is a smallish book with greatness in its veins, and if its title conjures up the depth of winter, at its core it feels like the full-on rush of springtime.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>