WHILE IRISH POLITICS and history are filled with wild tales of comic brutality, novelist Edna O'Brien addresses the island's sense of dim hopes and desolation in less hyperbolic terms. O'Brien's latest, Wild Decembers, is consistent in its minor-key pitch: This poetic novel set in the Irish countryside revolves around a ruinous land conflict between Joseph Brennan and Mick Bugler. The stalemate has defined O'Brien's cast for generations: "The families, though distantly related, had feuds that went back hundreds of years, and by now had hardened into a dour sullenness."
After Bugler returns to claim his ancestors' land, this sullenness erupts: He takes over Brennan's right to graze his herd on a neighbor's fields, setting the stakes for a proper showdown. The two face off in a barroom brawl, and Brennan embarks on an ill-fated legal crusade to destroy his rival. However doomed the men's battle promises to be, O'Brien's precise and sensuous description of these petty acres carries such a charmed quality that the reader can almost imagine why they're worth the fight:
A harvest moon like an orange gong appeared over the ridge of the mountain and soon it seemed to sail down in stately pearliness above the lake, slits of moonlight creeping into the bottom of the boathouse....
Yet acrimony this deep will not be left in the handsome fields beyond the dooryard. Instead it creeps near the bedroom. Brennan's sister Breege and Bugler have eyes for each other, which only further enrages Brennan. Bugler's ardor is a bit questionable, too: A ladies' man known as Mickey Dazzler to locals, he is already engaged to a woman living in Australia. After Brennan learns of this from an anonymous phone call, he pursues his court case with even greater fervor. The appearance of Bugler's fiancée only makes matters worse.
Wild December is compelling in examining these feuding families, though their personalities largely follow traditional Irish stereotypes: Joe Brennan and Bugler are rugged men who work the land and tip the beer mug too often; Breege is a long-suffering plain Jane seething with repressed sexuality. O'Brien also draws from stock types in creating the host of characters who periodically pry into the Buglers' and Brennans' miserable business. These include many of the usual cast of odd, rural locals, such as Josephine, a gossip who runs the local hair salon, and Crock, a deformed man whose mother once called him the "ugliest child ever born."
But characters aren't what drives Wild Decembers. Rather, what fuels this complex novel of shifting narrative voices is the unbearable burden of the past--a kind of original sin springing from the center of the town that yields a boundless harvest of tainted fruit--obsession and jealousy. The town's two flirtatious sisters Rita and Reena, for instance, use sex as a form of economic bribery. Crock wonders why he is so cursed as to be denied participation in this ritual. And Joe Brennan is bitter over not just grazing rights, but his own lost love.
The inevitable disaster of desire wells up most forcefully in the tug Bugler and Breege feel for each other. There's beauty in their relationship--"I didn't think that anything as nice as this could happen to me," Bugler tells Breege at one point--but there's tragedy, too, painfully and spellbindingly described.