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A Reader's Guide

Wild Decembers

• A National Bestseller & a Book Sense '76 Title

"A page-turning narrative . . . as wildly beautiful and windswept as the country of her fiction." —Elle

"O'Brien is a storyteller, an Irish storyteller, one of an ancient tradition of storytellers, people who tell the truth." —Thomas Cahill, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Beautiful and lush . . . a precise, poetic recollection of a distant world" —New York Times Book Review

With the arrival of Michael Bugler's newfangled tractor, and of Mick Bugler himself, fresh from Australia to claim his family heritage, life on the mountain of Slieve Clochan and in the village of Cloontha is changed forever. And Joseph Brennan's relationship with the fields, bogs, and woods of the mountain he calls his own is also transformed–as is the conventional, home- and church-bound life of Joseph's younger sister, Breege.

Edna O'Brien's masterly novel recounts the tragically rapid and life-altering demise of relations between Joe Brennan and Mick Bugler, "the warring sons of warring sons," on a tradition-bound mountain in tradition-bound western Ireland. With her inimitable gift for illuminating individual and social conflict and heartbreak, O'Brien raises Joseph's love for his land to the level of his sister Breege's love for both him and his new rival, Bugler. Aware for the first time in her life of love's possibilities, Breege also sees "the wrong of years and the recent wrongs" fuel each other, as Bugler's actions clash with her brother's long-unquestioned claims.

A classic drama ensues, involving all the "treasons, stratagems, and spoils" of which the human heart is capable. And all is leavened by the comedy of which Edna O'Brien never loses sight. A village dinner dance and Mick Bugler's seduction by a pair of land-hungry sisters rival Joyce in their comic exuberance. As the story unfolds, however, we are drawn into a destined discord of love, envy, possessiveness, and revenge, in a place both near and far away. Wild Decembers is a triumphant work from a writer who breaks new ground with each new novel.

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of Wild Decembers for every reader.

1. What is the significance of the novel's title, in itself and in association with the Emily Brontė quotation used as an epigraph? Why is the title in the plural?

2. What "frail and rusted shards" and relics of "the long ago" — actual and metaphoric — are still present in, or emerge from, the town, fields, bogs, and woods of Cloontha and Slieve Clochan and affect the people of today? In what respect might individual characters themselves be regarded as relics of "the long ago"?

3. In the preface, O'Brien writes: "They say the enemy came in the night, but the enemy can come at any hour, be it dawn or twilight, because the enemy is always there and these people know it, locked in a tribal hunger that bubbles in the blood and hides out on the mountain." Who or what is "the enemy"? How would you describe that "tribal hunger"? How does it make itself known in the lives of the characters?

4. In what ways are Reena and Rita's methods of acquiring land both different from and similar to the historical and contemporary ways of others? To what extent is their attachment to the land similar to Joe's and Mick's?

5. In what sense are the bogs "sacred places and the storehouse of our past," as Joseph writes to Bugler? What importance does this view of the bogs — and of the mountain itself — take on?

6. How important to the story and to the lives of the people of Cloontha is the notion of the outsider–"the inferiority of the returned exile," in Mr. Leveau's words? Why in a community like Cloontha is the outsider, however related to the locality by family history, seen as a threat?

7. Just before he beats her, Breege sees in Joseph's eyes "that mad rage that is the inverse of love." What other "inverses" of and obstacles to love occur in the novel? How and why do destructive feelings and actions turn people away from the love and friendship that they otherwise feel – or might feel — for one another?

8. As a result of Joseph's attack on Breege, "Fear had come into the house and with fear falsity." What fears and what falsities existed in the lives of Breege, Joseph, and the others prior to the beating, and which become prominent after the beating?

9. What roles, possibilities, opportunities, and resources are open to the women of Cloontha? What are the consequences for Breege and other women of ignoring or challenging conventions and expectations?

10. What is the purpose of the sometimes garbled, sometimes inappropriate literary and mythic quotations and allusions favored by Joseph and the Crock? How does deliberate or unintentional misrepresentation of history, myth, legend, and law result in a distorted view of the present and a deformed sense of oneself?

11. In what ways, and to what extent, does Breege take on a mythic presence and function, especially beginning on the moonlit night when she takes Bugler to her family's graveyard on the lake isle? In what ways, and to what extent, is Joseph's behavior the contrary of the mythic hero's or legendary warrior's? What other characters might be seen as similarly representing or alluding to mythic figures?

12. What supernatural signs, elements, and presences play a part in the story? How are they introduced, in what contexts, and with what relevance to the characters and the action?

13. What factors result in Joe Brennan's ending up feeling "outside everyone and everything . . . , an outcast in the world"? What forces–personal, familial, communal, and historical–come together to impose an outcast state on Joseph? To what extent is he himself accountable for his virtually complete isolation?

14. Alone in the Brennan house after Joe's sentencing, Breege, "holding her belly, . . . reaches back, back to those nameless and spectral forces of which she is made. " If we were to give names to those "spectral forces," what might we call them? In what way are they the forces of which Breege herself is made?

15. O'Brien has said that "for the characters in Wild Decembers, the holding on to land is as vital as the holding on to life. They are interchangeable." In what ways are the two interchangeable for O'Brien's characters? To what extent might that interchangeability be the consequence of generations of deprivation and an inherited fear of dispossession?

Edna O'Brien on Writing, Writers, and Herself

On the rural Ireland of her childhood:

I happened to grow up in a country that was and is breathlessly beautiful, so the feeling for nature, for verdure, and for the soil was instilled in me. Secondly, there was no truck with culture or literature so that my longing to write sprang up of its own accord, was spontaneous. The only books in our house were prayer books, cookery books, and blood stock reports. I was privy to the world around me, was aware of everyone's little history, the stuff from which stories and novels are made. On the personal level, it was pretty drastic. So all these things combined to make me what I am.1

On leaving Ireland:

To establish oneself in a particular place and to use it as the locale for fiction is both a strength to a writer and a signpost to the reader. But you have to go if you find your roots too threatening, too impinging. Joyce said that Ireland is the sow that eats its farrow – he was referring to their attitude to their writers, they savage them. It is no accident that our two greatest illustrati – himself and Mr. [Samuel] Beckett – left and stayed away, though they never lost their particular Irish consciousness. In my own case, I do not think that I would have written anything if I had stayed. I feel I would have been watched, would have been judged (even more!) and would have lost that priceless commodity called freedom. Writers are always on the run and I was on the run from many things. Yes, I dispossessed myself and I am sure that I lost something, lost the community, lost the day-to-day contact with reality. However, compared with Eastern European writers [as of 1984], I have the advantage that I can always go back.1

On the correct position regarding women in literature:

The correct position is to write the truth, to write what one feels regardless of any public consideration or any clique. I think an artist never takes a position either through expediency or umbrage. Artists detest and suspect positions because they know that the minute you take a fixed position you are something else, you are a journalist or you are a politician. What I am after is a bit of magic and I do not want to write tracts or to read them. I have depicted women in lonely, desperate and often humiliated situations, very often the butt of men and almost always searching for an emotional catharsis that does not come. This is my territory and one that I know from hard-earned experience. If you want to know what I regard as the principal crux of female despair, it is this: in the Greek myth of Oedipus and in Freud's exploration of it, the son's desire for his mother is admitted; the infant daughter also desires its mother but it is unthinkable, either in myth, in fantasy or in fact, that that desire can be consummated.1

On the function of fiction:

Fiction should be in its way subversive. I don't think books should be neat or gentle or genteel or comforting. I think they should be raw. They should be written as perfectly as possible, but what they do is to stir up, to lance the reader . . .

I remember years ago Kenneth Tynan saying to me, "You love Chekhov so much because he writes thrillingly about desperation," and I want to write thrillingly about desperation. I don't want to write depressingly about desperation. To do what? To put it on its toes. To make it dance. And yet still make it desperation.2

On her favorite writers:

It has to be James Joyce. It is not out of national feelings that I say such a thing. It is simply that when I was working in Dublin in a chemist's shop, I one day bought a book for four pennies called Introducing James Joyce, by T. S. Eliot, and I opened it to a section from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the Christmas dinner scene . . . When I read that, I realized one thing: that I need go no further than my own interior, my own experience, for whatever I wanted to write. It was truly . . . an utter revelation to me.

The other is William Faulkner. If there are two men in heaven, as I hope they are—though Joyce would not want me to mention such a place—if they are in the ether out there together, I hope they are drinking, and I drink to their greatness, to what they have given. It is massive what they have given to life. There are writers and writers. But there is Joyce and Faulkner, for me.3

About the Author

Edna O'Brien, born in Taumgraney, County Clare, Ireland, is the author of numerous works of fiction, including Down by the River, House of Splendid Isolation, Time and Tide, and Lantern Slides (stories), which won the 1990 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. Her biography of James Joyce was published in 1999. The west of Ireland, where she spent her childhood, provides the setting for most of her novels and stories and informs many of her plots. In 1951, O'Brien married the Czech-Irish writer Ernest Gebler and moved to London, where her two sons, Carlos and Sasha, were born. After her 1963 divorce from Gebler, she remained in London, raising her sons and establishing her reputation as a writer.

Her first novel, The Country Girls, appeared in 1960, to controversy, burning, and banning. Her next six novels, from The Lonely Girl (1962) through Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977), were also banned in Ireland. Mother Ireland, a tribute to her homeland, appeared in 1976. In 1986, the single-volume reissue of her first three novels–as The Country Girls–brought her international recognition. In 1994, she incorporated political issues into her fiction with House of Splendid Isolation. She published Wild Decembers, her fourteenth novel, after receiving an honorary doctorate from Queens University, Belfast. In addition to the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, she is the recipient of the Kingsley Amis Award (1962) and the 1995 European Prize of Literature, in recognition of her life's work. O'Brien is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She continues to live in London, with frequent stays in the west of Ireland.

1 Philip Roth, "A Conversation with Edna O'Brien," New York Times (November 18, 1984)
2 Dan Cryer, "Talking with Edna O'Brien, Odd Woman Out," Newsday (July 10, 1994)
3 "LitChat," Salon (December 2, 1995)

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