By Ray Sawhill
“Time and Tide” (Farrar Straus Giroux), the Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s 11th novel, is her harshest yet most beautiful work. She has a touchy, rich theme: the sexuality of the bond between mothers and sons. In D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” this was seen from the son’s point of view; here, it’s seen from the mother’s. O’Brien’s heroine, Nell, has fled her Irish country upbringing, moved to England and married a stern, angry man. In the course of the novel, she leaves her marriage and finds her way among the constricted English.
A lusciously indulgent mother, she looks to her two sons for a kind of enduring entanglement they can’t give her once they’re no longer small children. She “let them get away with murder … they were her stronghold.” The boys adore her yet finally have to shut her off. You sense how distraught this makes Nell, and experience her feelings and needs while registering how she drives people from her. Even after her sons go to boarding school and she has romances and adventures of her own, the boys are the center of her life; she covets their approval like an anxious lover. O’Brien brings together the earthy and the delicately poetic: she has the soul of Molly Bloom and the skills of Virginia Woolf.
© 1992 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.