Love Tales Not Lightly Told

LANTERN SLIDES, By Edna O'Brien, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 224 pp., $18.95

EDNA O'BRIEN'S first novel, ``The Country Girls,'' was published in 1960 and met with high praise both in the United States and in Britain. Critics raved about her effortless prose and lyrical language, and O'Brien - barely 30 - began a writing career that has been remarkably prolific.

Since her debut, she has produced no less than 15 works of fiction, as well as memoirs and screenplays, of which ``Girl With Green Eyes'' may be best known to American filmgoers.

Like James Joyce and other expatriate Irish writers of an earlier era, Edna O'Brien contends that leaving Ireland was a prerequisite to writing about it; she has lived in London since 1959.

``Lantern Slides'' is O'Brien's newest story collection. Devotees of O'Brien's work will be pleased to find that the terrain of the 12 stories is familiar, as are many of the characters. There is the philandering husband, always evident in O'Brien's fiction, the unhappy mistress, the cruel, thoughtless father, the jilted woman, suffering or driven to near madness.

If each writer has a major theme or thesis that repeats itself through all the facets of his work, then Edna O'Brien's subject has always been the critical importance and the enduring pain of human love.

The stories in ``Lantern Slides'' all deal in one way or another with love's ecstasy, its disappointment, and its destructive power.

``Brother,'' one of the strongest stories in the collection, is the shocking diatribe of an outraged sister aimed at the soon-to-be-married brother with whom she has lived incestuously for years. The story is told in an Irish dialect that explodes with fury in a gorgeous fire of words.

``Long Distance,'' another beauty of a story, is vintage O'Brien. It is extraordinary how many times this author has written and rewritten of the aftermath of love, the end of the affair, and the crisis of abandonment. In ``Long Distance,'' a man and woman, once lovers, meet again. As their passion is rekindled, O'Brien captures with a ruthless pen the poignancy and hopelessness of their situation.

``He had probably quite forgotten how it had ended, forgotten the late-night calls, the mad curses she had visited on him, the cold rodent glances he gave her when they met once at a summer party. He was conscious again, as if for the first time, of her radiance, this woman in a black dress, composed and at the same time reeking wildness.''

``The Widow'' and ``Dramas,'' two stories set in Irish country towns, are memorable and chilling accounts of individuals who are destroyed the moment that they dare to flout the steely conventions of the backward society that rules them.

It is interesting to notice how O'Brien's full powers of language are always released in her stories set in Ireland, not only in the lively dialogue, but in the narrative as well.

The novels and the stories placed in England have a flat, modern tonality that makes them bland and lifeless by comparison.

O'Brien's people, once they have escaped the suffocating intimacy of Irish society and left the echo of Roman Catholicism far behind them, ringing in the bogs, seem also to lose their color and their splendor.

Rarely does O'Brien achieve on foreign soil the effortless, organic brilliance that one finds in her most Irish tales.

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