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Motherhood as an endless ache

A mother and her daughter long to love one another, but so many obstacles stand in the way.

"Yesterday a chimney pot fell down and the breakfast room chimney is blocked with crow's nests ... I saw your photograph in the paper but can I say the outfit you wore didn't do you justice ... You have many ill-wishers here ... You are never out of my mind."

So meanders one of the many missives from mother to daughter woven throughout The Light of Evening, the graceful, bittersweet new novel about the ache of maternal love by Irish writer Edna O'Brien.

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The letters, says O'Brien, are spliced together verbatim from letters her own mother sent to her – and that is exactly how they feel.

They have the lovely, raw texture of daily life in a rural setting (money problems, an injured cow, the flu), homey news of the neighbors (the passing of an old friend, somebody's new overcoat), and then there's the occasional jolt straight from a mother's longing heart ("...remember love is all bull, the only true love is that between mother and child").

It's not a love, however, that necessarily brings comfort and warmth. O'Brien writes in the novel's prologue of "the lonely evening sound of the mothers," voices protesting that "it is not our fault that we weep so, it is nature's fault that makes us first full, then empty."

The fictional mother in "The Light of Evening" is named Dilly. She spends most of her life on the family farm in Ireland, while her daughter, Eleanora, who long ago eloped to England, is off in London writing novels that cause scandals and upset Dilly's neighbors.

Those who have followed O'Brien's career will pretty easily recognize the source of that plotline. As a young woman, O'Brien married and fled to London. In 1966 she published "Country Girls," the story of two young Irish girls looking to throw off the traces of their stifling upbringing. The book was burned publicly by O'Brien's parish priest.

It's taken O'Brien the better part of a lifetime to reconcile with her native country (where her books have sometimes been banned) while her mother, according to O'Brien, never fully came to terms with her daughter's choices.

But, O'Brien suggests in "The Light of Evening," perhaps that's inevitable – just another achy chapter in the difficult history of mother-daughter relations.

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"The Light of Evening" begins with Dilly heading to the hospital for tests. Her greatest wish is for a visit from Eleanora. ("When I'm dying I hope you will be with me, I always hope for that," she writes in a letter that Eleanora reads after she is dead.) Eleanora does finally arrive.

The visit brings neither mother nor daughter the solace they may have hoped for. However, as the two meditate on their relationship, both are launched back in time to recall their own individual stories.

O'Brien, whom many consider to be one of Ireland's finest writers, is a delightfully subtle narrator. She manages to touch on life's most complex and painful issues (death, desertion, the never-quite-fulfilled search for love) in ways that are both deft and tender as both mother and daughter narrate their tales.

Dilly, for her part, left Ireland for New York in the 1920s, her own hunger for opportunity trumping the desire of her own mother, Bridget, to keep her close.

Dilly's crossing of the Atlantic in the pit of a steamship, her frightening and humiliating arrival at Ellis Island, and the strangeness of being alone in a surging young city are wonderfully conveyed.

Later on, when romance comes upon Dilly, her happiness is sketched in spare but lovely lines. A young Irish-American, working out West, "finding himself outside under a roof of frozen stars ... sat down and realized how he kept thinking of Dilly and wondering if it was too much to ask, to suppose that Dilly might be thinking of him. And she was. And she was."

The happiness, however, doesn't last, and soon Dilly finds herself back in Ireland, living on a farm and raising children of her own.

But Terence, the son, is lost to a grasping daughter-in-law, and the book-loving Eleanora is an odd one from the start. Attracted to things her mother can't understand ("literature had had its vertiginous effect upon her"), Eleanora makes her own painful journey away from Ireland and her mother.

Despite the scandals, affairs, and travels that punctuate Eleanora's life, in some ways Eleanora's story is simply a more eventful (and yet for the reader, somewhat less satisfying) version of her mother's. Neither finds sufficient love in marriage (on Dilly's wedding day, ice chunks float unmelted on a distant river, while at Eleanora's home two lights can be seen burning in distant corners late every night) and each continues to long for the other. Dilly's love, however, is tempered by criticism while Eleanora's is complicated by anger and the fear of losing herself to her mother's desire.

Ultimately, however, this is also a story about one's homeland, and Dilly's wish to leave Eleanora her childhood home becomes an almost desperate form of love, perhaps a surrogate for the intimacy that is never otherwise achieved.

Yet in a surprising way, toward the novel's end, Dilly is allowed a glimpse into her daughter, and it is possible to imagine that in the end Dilly may have understood her girl better than either dared to hope.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. You may send comments to Marjorie Kehe.