Josie O’Meara is old and lonely in her crumbling big manor house in the Irish countryside. She’s come home from the hospital to die in her own home. She is haunted by her past, her abusive husband and a tragic love affair with an unavailable man. She is utterly alone in the world, a nurse occasionally coming to check on her and a grocery delivery coming once a week. The last thing she expected is to be caught up in the manhunt for a dangerous escaped IRA soldier, McGreevy, nicknamed The Beast. Informed of the owner’s invalid status, once he escapes from jail he travels south and uses her house for cover in an operation to kill a vacationing English lord. The last thing Josie expects is to feel something for a man described who is a killer.
House of Splendid Isolation is a complicated novel, a mix of suspense, social commentary, and exploration of the choices one makes and has to live with. I don’t pretend to know very much about Ireland’s Troubles, just the bare bones, but O’Brien makes McGreevy just sympathetic enough to have probably gotten some flack for her portrayal. My sympathies were engaged by many characters in this short novel – Josie, McGreevy, a young policeman who kills a man for the first time (one of McGreevy’s comrades,) a young woman who sympathizes with the IRA and seems to be waiting for her life to really begin. They are all caught in their roles, it seems, playing parts almost predestined for them. The action of the story shifts back and forth from the present to Josie’s sad past. McGreevy is not the only one who may have something to atone for.
Reading House of Splendid Isolation, I bemoaned the fact that I had never read anything by Edna O’Brien before. I was thoroughly engrossed in the compelling story and propulsive writing style. O’Brien has crafted a moving story with some thrilling scenes – I was reading the scene where McGreevy breaks into Josie’s house while my husband was working at night, and my son was asleep, and I was convinced I heard a noise outside. (I was totally creeped out!) I appreciated the way O’Brien makes the reader work a bit – we’re not always sure who is talking or thinking when a scene shifts perspective. She keeps us on our toes. It is a sad novel, but the fast pace and the sensitive characterization make it worthwhile. This may have been my first O’Brien novel, but it will not be my last.