Review: Without my Cloak, by Kate O’Brien

Still, Considine or not, you were born among us and you haven’t escaped any more than the rest of us our terrible family affection, our cowardly inability to do without each other.  Why, our whole strength is simply in our instinct to be large and populous and united.  (p. 244)

The Considine family is large, prosperous and very influential.  Their presence in the Irish town of Mellick dates back to a horse thief who arrived in 1789.  Nearly a century later, the family has left that legacy behind.  Honest John, son of the horse thief, started a business dealing in hay, straw, and forage and built it into a thriving international concern.  His children are grown; his four sons have found “appropriate” careers, and his four daughters are all in marriages carefully orchestrated to preserve or enhance social standing.  Honest John appointed his youngest son Anthony to take over the family business, and went so far as to express a desire that his grandson Denis, then 4 years old, succeed his father Anthony when he comes of age.

I like to use little sticky page flags to mark especially well-written passages, but there were so many in this book that I stopped doing so after the first 100 pages.  The entire novel  was beautifully written, and very moving in so many places.  Take, for example, this passage describing the love between Anthony and his wife, Molly:

Whether Molly guessed the motive of his efforts at asceticism he could not say, but he imagined that she did. Whatever she was thinking she was very tender with his lapses from monasticism. But he and she rarely spoke of these things and never with precision. She knew that he deplored for her the discomfort of incessant childbearing and would do much to lessen it, but saw no help within the social and religious code they both upheld. He knew that childbirth frightened her, wilted and crushed her and gave her in her babies only very slender compensation, for she was by nature far more wife than mother. But it was a problem which they could never thrash out, and it was heightened by the fact that they were both on the crest of life, and if not loving each other very perfectly at all times and in all the regions of love, yet doomed to find a terrible delight, again and again, each in the other’s body. (p. 76-77)

Anthony’s sister Caroline, on the other hand, is in a lackluster marriage and powerless to escape; O’Brien brings intense emotional depth to those passages as well.  And then there’s brother Eddy — as a man, he freed himself from family & societal pressures by serving as the business’ London representative.  In describing his London lifestyle, O’Brien alludes to Eddy’s homosexuality, and drives the point home through another sister’s endless squawking about how Eddy really should get married (even as Eddy ages into his 50s)!  And finally there’s young Denis, who comes of age in Mellick feeling very ambivalent about his career with the firm.  Denis prefers gardens and design, but the bond with his father is so strong, he is unable to express his wishes.  This all comes to a head, of course.  Denis rebels, embarrassing his family and bringing considerable pain on himself.  I found the dénouement a bit too tidy, but that’s a relatively minor weakness in an otherwise wonderful book.

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13 thoughts on “Review: Without my Cloak, by Kate O’Brien

    • Thanks Eva! I would never even have heard of this until I started collecting Virago Modern Classics. I doubt my library has it either …

  1. I had already put this on my wishlist after reading your previous post on the book, but this made me want to read it even more!

  2. This was my first Kate O’Brien, and I fell in love to the point that I can still visualise where I found it in the library in an area where I only lived for a few months. I have my own copy now!

  3. Laura, I found your review to be enlightening and enviably well written. Thanks for sharing.
    I bought my paperback copy of “Without My Cloak” a few years ago at the Dublin Writers Museum, because it looked like a “good read”. Both my wife and I read the book and enjoyed it immensely. I particularly liked discovering uniquely Irish terms and phrases as I read the story (e.g., “no cross, no crown”). I recall one character’s wife urging her husband to have something to eat before attending a dinner with others (so that he would not be embarrassingly ravenous), and referred to the pre-dinner snack with a not-so-familiar word, which I do not remember. I am racking my brain now trying to recall it…
    Another one of my favorite Irish writers is Maria Edgeworth. I recommend reading “Castle Rackrent”, “Ennui”, and short story “The Limerick Gloves”. The latter can be found in an excellent compendium called “The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories.”

  4. Laura — This is a terrific review! Thanks for using it as one of your Battle of the Prizes, British Version, reviews. Sorry that I didn’t post it right away — I must have flown right by the email that should have alerted me to your comment.

    I added the link to your review to the list on main challenge post.

    Thanks again for participating!

    • No problem at all! Thanks for adding me to the list! I have two books left — one for the American version, and one for the British. Good fun!

  5. I’ve just stumbled upon your lovely blog after googling a review for this book. I had bought the book on the strength of it being a Virago but didn’t know much else about it so thank you for putting your review out there – I’m now REALLY looking forward to reading it.

    Thanks too for all the other lovely reviews on your site – you have great taste in books! I’ve subscribed and look forward to your future reading adventures.

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