A few years ago, Ireland was forced to confront its conscience when a 14-year-old girl, the purported victim of rape, sought an abortion in England. The ensuing legal and moral battles exposed the Emerald Isle's centuries-long struggles over religion, sexuality, and the position of women. Irish writer Edna O'Brien revisits this embattled territory in her novel Down by the River, a bleak, uncompromising chronicle of poverty, unwanted pregnancy, and despair. O'Brien's protagonist is Mary, almost 14 years old and pregnant by her widowed father. In a repressed, judgmental rural world, Mary can tell no one of her plight. Eventually she tries to drown herself, only to be rescued by a neighbor, Betty. When Betty learns the reason for Mary's suicide attempt, she arranges to take her to England for an abortion. Before the operation can occur, Mary is coerced into returning to Ireland and there she becomes the focal point in a ferocious nationwide debate about abortion.
O'Brien is unsparing in her depictions of the economic and emotional poverty in which her characters live, yet she can be surprisingly empathetic toward even the least likeable among them, showing, for example, the tender side of Mary's father even as she exposes his brutality. The book's language is rich and laden with imagery, at times in shocking contrast to the parched lives she describes. Down by the River is just the latest in a long line of fiercely honest books by a fearlessly honest author.