"In the Forest" by Edna O'Brien

In a primal tale based on a true story, the great Irish novelist describes how an innocent, sensual woman falls into the hands of a pathological killer.

By Amy Reiter

Published March 21, 2002 5:11PM (EST)

Edna O'Brien draws us into a deep, dark place in her new novel "In the Forest." A dank place reeking of death and decomposition, of loneliness and fury, of sex and murder. A place devoid of movement and light, where all but the fiercest, toughest forms of life will gasp for air, topple and dissolve into the earth.

And if Cloosh Wood is a real place of unspeakable sorrow in O'Brien's book, it is also a place within, the place we find ourselves in our most vivid nightmares, in which we know what horrors await us, yet are compelled to play out our fate.

So it is for the players in O'Brien's story. We know from the outset that Michen O'Kane, dubbed "The Kinderschreck" (literally, "children scarer") by a German man from whom he stole a gun at age 10, will commit murder. We know, too, that Eily Ryan, a beautiful gypsy-type who has come to the small western Irish town in which O'Kane was raised, will be among his victims. And we suspect that she may not be alone -- and that the people of the town will somehow fail to help her.

It's the why and the how that we're not sure about, and that O'Brien so compellingly reveals, spelling out the steps leading to the inevitable climax -- deep in the forest -- from various perspectives, as if she were piecing together testimony at a trial.

We follow Michen from his early days as his mother's pet, and learn that he fled to the forest for shelter after watching helplessly as his father attacked her with a poker. After his mother has died and Michen has taken up arms against his father and a police sergeant, we observe with distaste, though not surprise, the trials that befall him at the detention home to which he is shipped -- beatings, molestation by the clergy, his gang rape by the other boys. We see the signs -- the delusional thinking, the chronic bed-wetting, the sudden urge to kill small animals, the commanding voices in his head, the lack of real remorse -- that lead him to squander his every chance at redemption and normalcy and that prompt the authorities to warn his prospective adoptive parents that "this boy could kill." His would-be benefactors may be shocked by this prognosis, but we're surely not.

And we're sad, but not alarmed, to see Eily Ryan -- young son in tow -- stroll goodheartedly into Michen's sights and make herself all the more vulnerable every step of the way. She unwittingly moves into the Kinderschreck's former den, exuding a maternal sexuality while remaining stubbornly isolated -- from friends, lovers and neighbors -- in her seemingly idyllic world.

Even the passivity of the townspeople, their submissive acceptance of the evils the Kinderschreck subjects them to -- and their frightened refusal to stick their own necks out to help themselves, let alone an outsider -- slowly loses its initial power to startle. Like members of a Greek chorus, they stand idly by, offering up their individual voices to the collective. It seems safer that way, after all. And if even the police are terrified of this man, what hope is there for Eily, her sweet son and a gentle priest who tries to help them?

What is surprising, and pleasantly so, is the emotional urgency that propels O'Brien's narrative, the intense richness of her prose, the primal truths about human nature she reveals as she plumbs the lives of these tragic figures. Immersing herself in the thicket of a true crime (the story is based on a real-life 1966 murder spree), O'Brien has patiently peeled back the underbrush and laid bare the forest within.

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Amy Reiter

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