Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting

‘In the Forest’ by Edna O’Brien


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 273 pages; 2002.

Set in the countryside of western Ireland, this dark, brooding book is based on a real life triple murder in which a man shot dead three people — a woman, her young child and a priest — in a forest glade in 1994. But wounds run deep and Edna O’Brien, who wrote the book eight years later, was accused of exploiting a gruesome crime for the sake of a novel and much vilified for her efforts.

With this is mind, I read In the Forest with some trepidation. But I was gripped from the first page and read the book within a matter of days.

Story of a kinderschreck

It tells the story of Mich O’Kane, a young boy who gets shunted from one institution to another. Devoid of any motherly love he grows into a fearsome individual that the locals call the Kinderschreck — a kind of monster — and eventually goes to jail for a serious crime.

Meanwhile, Eily Ryan, an unmarried mother, moves to the small town of Cloosh. Here, with her young son Maddy, she sets up home in a remote dilapidated cottage on the edge of the forest, where she can concentrate on her art.

But when O’Kane is released from jail he returns to Cloosh. With no family support and outcast by the locals, he is forced to live in the forest, only appearing in the village when he needs to beg or steal food.

Animal-like in behaviour and thought, he begins stalking Eily. One day, unable to control his sexual fantasies any longer, he abducts Eily and orders her to drive deep into the forest …

Dark and disturbing

There’s no doubt that this book is dark and disturbing. On more than one occasion I felt goosebumps erupt on my skin. But O’Brien never resorts to sensationalism. Her prose is careful, at times clipped, and she moves the story along at an almost annoyingly slow pace, building to the chilling climax slowly but surely.

What I didn’t particularly like was the narrative devices she uses. The story is told from too many divergent and various sources, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third person. While I understand this was probably O’Brien’s attempt to cover all points of view, to demonstrate that the crime was not as straightforward as one might have expected, it hampered the narrative drive.

All in all, In the Forest is an intriguing, atmospheric novel, which is almost Gothic-like in its brooding intensity. Just don’t expect to find yourself falling in love with O’Brien’s work.

11 thoughts on “‘In the Forest’ by Edna O’Brien”

  1. I have only read one book by her, Lust. It was a book of short stories that I remember really liking. If you were sufficently intrigued by In the Forest, you might want to check it out.
    I may now check out In the Forest. Thanks!


  2. I saw this at the bookstore the other day and almost bought it. Sounds like I will need to go back and pick it up. But just having come off of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it may be awhile before I read it.


  3. I got this book from the library last Monday but just wasn’t able to get into it: page 43 and I gave up.
    I don’t know if it was the strange sentence structures, or not knowing who was who or what was going on. This is one book that just didn’t do it for me nor promise reward if I stuck to it.


  4. Ron, the strange sentence structure can be off-putting if you are not used to Irish writers. I quite like it, because Irish people write exactly as they speak, and it’s a very lyrical kind of prose that is apparantly directly translated from the Irish (Gaelic) language with verbs and nouns kind of switched around. (My other half is Irish!) Funnily enough, because I have seen O’Brien interviewed on TV so many times, I had her voice running through my head when I read this book: in many ways it was like I was listening to her read it to me. I think that made it an easier read for me. But I can understand if you didn’t like it — it is an odd style of writing.


  5. I think I just must not be in the mood for Irish writing at the moment, Kimbofo. I got halfway through ‘The Dark’ by John McGahern yesterday and gave that away too.


  6. Well, I finally got around to reading this one. I’d forgotten that you mentioned when the murders took place, and for me, I got the (mistaken)sense from the book that it was taking place in the late 60s/early 70s.


  7. Have just started reading this one. It is a strange type of writing – disagree it is typical of Irish writers though! Read J McGahern – Memoirs. It is v good.
    (from Dublin)


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