This week I discovered a new author who has instantly landed on my “favorite authors” list: Ireland’s Kate O’Brien (3 December 1897 – 13 August 1974). O’Brien’s mother died when she was 5, and she was sent to live in a convent. From there she attended University College Dublin, worked on the Manchester Guardian and as a governess, became a playwright and then a novelist. I’m reading Without My Cloak, which won the James Tait Black Prize in 1931. My edition is a Virago Modern Classic, with the lovely cover art that VMCs are known for.
From the very first pages of this novel, I knew I was in for a treat. By page 100, the book was full of Post-its marking beautiful passages. And I found I was reading slowly, savoring every page, every nuance. It’s taking me longer to finish than usual, but I don’t care. It’s just that good.
Without My Cloak is a family saga — a multi-generational story of the prosperous Considine family. Within its 468 pages, O’Brien paints a vivid picture of an Irish town and the surrounding countryside. Her characters are fully formed, with histories, relationships, and emotions. People live, and they die — and even death is beautiful, as in this passage describing family members at a funeral:
The world had seen them grave, collected, and resigned, and so in the main they had shown themselves to each other. They had made his room majestic with candles and lilies; they had stood quietly at his bedside and had knelt to pray there; they had been gentle in receiving the sympathy of an exhausting stream of callers … His sons had walked and his daughters, forgetting to drive home from the church like ladies, because they wanted to be near him to the end, and because they knew he would wish them there, drove behind him, their beautifully matched horses reined to a very slow step, past the dreamily spired Cathedral to which he had given a priest, past the grey outskirts of his town to St. Stephen’s Cemetery, and so up its wide paths …
Besides writing beautiful prose, O’Brien explores the struggle of women for freedom and independence, especially within the context of Irish society and the Catholic church. She also alludes to homosexuality and the difficulties this creates within a large, prosperous, influential family. I own two other books by Kate O’Brien (Mary Lavelle and That Lady) and am very much looking forward to reading them.
Read more from The Sunday Salon here.