Monday, 14 November 2011

The River's Edge

In 1992 a 14-year-old Dublin girl told her parents that she had been raped by a friend of her father and became pregnant. The girl and her parents planned to travel to England secure an abortion for their child, as abortion was not available in Ireland. The parents informed the Garda of their intentions and inquired about the best way to collect DNA evidence that could be used in the prosecution of the rapist. The Director of Public Prosecutions became involved and the Attorney General obtained an injunction preventing the girl, now known as Miss X, from leaving the country to have an abortion. The public outrage on both sides of the abortion debate was intense resulting in a media frenzy and political commentary. Eventually, the case of Attorney General v X established the right to obtain an abortion if the pregnant woman’s life was at risk. Because Miss X was suicidal, she was permitted to travel to England for the abortion, but miscarried before this eventuated.

This case serves as the inspiration for Edna O’Brien’s 1996 novel Down by the River, challenging the church, the state and the people to confront the abortion debate. Young Mary McNamara lives in rural Ireland with her parents. Her mother dies leaving her unprotected from the advances of her father. She becomes pregnant and, ashamed of the incest and concerned that the child will be a ‘freak’, Mary attempts to take her own life by drowning in a river. A neighbour, Betty, prevents the suicide and arranges to take the girl to England to have an abortion but they are forced to return to Ireland where Mary is taken into the custody of the State. Mary then becomes public property with everyone having an opinion on what should happen to her.

O’Brien writes in a beautifully poetic way and I enjoyed her descriptive prose (e.g. ‘a filigree of ash’). But the novel left me cold and at times I was ready to give up on it. Then I would push on, only to find myself engrossed for the next few pages.

It wasn’t the subject matter that put me off this book, but rather O’Brien’s storytelling. Too much is implied rather than described. Perhaps it was the lack of character development – we never really get to know Mary although I imagine O’Brien’s intention was to portray Mary as a girl without her own voice. I would have liked to understand Mary better, but there was a distance between her and the reader. There were many odd scenes where new characters were introduced only to be forgotten three pages later. The ending also seemed rushed and was unsatisfying. All in all, there was much to admire in Down by the River and while I would recommend it for its thought-provoking subject matter, ultimately I felt let down by the storytelling.