Monday, June 22, 2009

The Last of Summer

The Last of Summer (1943) isn't the best-known of Kate O'Brien's novels, and I was quite lucky to find it at Charlie Byrne's a few months back. (I check the Irish lit shelf every time I go in, but I usually find only the novels I've already read.) O'Brien is among the great Irish novelists, though she isn't nearly as well known (in or out of Ireland) as she ought to be.

Raised in Paris by a French mother and an Irish father (both of whom are dead by the time this story takes place), Angèle first comes to Ireland in 1939 with several other actors over on holiday from London. Towards the end of a sunny, sultry August—yes, sometimes in Ireland the weather is really that fine!—Angèle skips out on her companions to visit her father's relations for the first time.

The Kernahan clan is headed by her frosty, magisterial Aunt Hannah (widow of her father's brother Ned), and Angèle is puzzled by Hannah's hot-and-cold reaction to her sudden appearance. She also meets her father's other brother, the bumbling, kind-hearted Uncle Corney; Hannah's cousin-slash-unpaid servant Dotey; and three cousins all about her age—Tom (the mild-mannered, responsible one), Martin (the brooding, cynical academic), and Jo (who is bound for the convent). Despite the weird vibes Hannah is giving off, Angèle becomes quick friends with her cousins, and Martin makes his attraction to her all too clear.

Having studied in Paris, Martin has far more in common with his long-lost cousin than his older brother, who is the quintessential 'mama's boy.' Their father died when Tom was a teenager, and he has managed the farm and served as his mother's most beloved companion ever since. The conversations between manipulative mother and all-too-malleable son leave the reader feeling squirmy, to say the least, and the author's treatment of their Oedipal relationship isn't exactly subtle ("Always she pleased his eyes as no other woman did." Whoa.) When Tom and Angèle announce their engagement after only a few days' acquaintance, naturally Hannah is outraged, but decides to give her blessing while secretly doing her utmost to unravel the attachment. This way Tom will come running back into her arms when the whole thing ends in tears.

Tom and Angèle don't even know each other, but they believe that the magnitude of their infatuation and their essential good natures will triumph over that pesky requirement of a papal dispensation—for being first cousins, and all—as well as the looming specter of another war in Europe, which may very well prevent Angèle from ever seeing her mother's family again. Their attraction makes sense in that Angèle is an orphan looking for a place in the family she's long wondered about, and Tom sees in her all the worldly experience he's been denied through his father's premature death and mother's 'strangling affection' (to use one of my favorite phrases from another Kate O'Brien novel). Without Angèle, Tom will live the rest of his life under his mother's thumb. He believes he needs her, but he'll never understand the real reason why.

In all her novels O'Brien does a marvelous job laying out the tangles of confused thoughts in a character's head, all the fragmentary images and memories and motives, the weird or spiteful thoughts one would never dream of uttering aloud. We are also privy to the interior monologues and personal history of minor characters like Dotey, who is no less fascinating for all her pathetically self-interested scheming, and the 'genially selfish' Dr. O'Byrne, whose daughter Norrie has been in love with Tom since childhood:
Dr. O'Byrne almost nodded his head as he listened to this delicate little speech—so exactly did it tell him what he had already told himself very often about this woman. She's certainly a great fly in the ointment, he reflected now with anxiety. I could hardly choose a worse mother-in-law for my girl. And she's only about fifty, so far as I recall, and she hasn't a thing wrong with her. Superb organic health. Nothing to stop her hanging on in vigour into the nineties. Upon my word, I think Norrie will need the heart of a lion to face it—but sure, that's what the child has! The heart of a lion, and it's set on Tom Kernahan...
And Jo Kernahan, the twenty-one-year-old future nun, is wise beyond her years, surveying the household's growing confusion over Tom and Angèle's proposed union with dispassionate sympathy. Her interior passages are particularly lovely:
And she had visited Sainte Fontaine—and knew that the best part of her soul was waiting for her there, had gone ahead of her to that out-of-date, cold, mediaeval centre of discipline and rigidity and elimination...
This is also the device through which we discover that all three of the Kernahan brothers were in love with Hannah, and that she and Angèle's father (also named Tom...hmm!) were engaged before the elder Tom jilted Hannah (glimpsed her true colors just in time) and ran off to Paris, never to return. Anxious to acquire the wealth and status of the Kernahan name, Hannah accepted Ned's subsequent offer. This tidily explains Hannah's instant hatred of her sensitive, pretty niece, but what's not so tidy (and is all the more satisfying for it) is that Angèle never discovers the real reason behind her father's hasty departure. These stream-of-consciousness passages are too intimate, all too messy, and that's precisely why they're such a delight to read.

I loved The Last of Summer for the same reason I love all Kate O'Brien's novels: the situation is a train wreck waiting to happen. You know early on how it's going to end, but it's so well done you'll never consider putting it down before you've finished it.

2 comments:

Susan said...

Is this one of the books lined up outside my door in queue? Hope so...

Kate said...

I think only Ma can keep up with your book recommendations :) Maybe if I had more time...