Turn of the shrew

Two small children give a crabby old woman a chance for new life

No one in Ireland can convey despair better than Sebastian Barry, and considering the hometown competition, that's a remarkable distinction. His previous novel, "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" is a gorgeous, heartbreaking story about a man condemned by the IRA. His most recent internationally acclaimed play, "The Steward of Christendom," is like "King Lear" without the upbeat ending.

There's plenty of his signature despair in this new little masterpiece, "Annie Dunne," but the emotional range is far broader, and the sparks of delight and love that shot through his previous work are given more oxygen here and encouraged to burn.

Recent offerings from Ireland have been remarkably successful experiments in minimalism. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration, for instance, to say that nothing happens in John McGahern's wonderful "By the Lake." (In one of the more active scenes, somebody mows hay.)

There's a little more action in "Annie Dunne," but not much. Like McGahern, Barry has risked substituting stylistic beauty for elements of plot. If it didn't work so well, even a short book like this would seem interminable. But Annie Dunne is a reflexively metaphoric narrator who passes epigraphs as effortlessly as breaths.

She lives with her cousin Sarah on a small farm in Wicklow where they tend to their chores in silent contentment. "This is work that would calm an evil God," Annie thinks. "Lucifer himself would find a balm in it." Unmarried and childless, they're delighted when a nephew drops off his young son and daughter to spend the summer. Both in their 60s, the two women consider this exhausting assignment a gift beyond wishing.

"All of the world is new, and very little, if any of it, is ugly to them," Annie notes. These city children are delighted by the simplest elements of farm life. Even unsalted butter is a marvel.

When "the owl is awake in the wood" and "the children are in their bedroom sleeping as deep as river stones," Annie is just as awed by them as they are by her. "I feel a sudden fear that we are too old to guard these little ones," she frets. "A hundred tasks and now, two creatures as vigorous as steam engines." Barry captures that ineffable parental mingling of joy and worry, contentment and dread. No book ever began more sweetly, more affectingly than this one.

But Annie is not a sweet, affecting woman. In fact, she's an unpleasant, cranky old hag. Denied the chance to marry or have children, she's spent a lifetime nursing offenses instead. She carries a hump on her back and an equally solid mass of rage in her mind. A spinal deformity kept her apart from others as a child, and that isolation was compounded when her father found himself on the wrong side of the Irish conflict.

The only security she's felt for years has come from her cousin Sarah. "All my anxiety has been the fear of losing my last niche in the world," she confesses, "and this little farm."

Unfortunately, the children aren't the only new elements in her life this summer. A handyman who helps them out periodically starts making romantic overtures to Sarah, a development that raises, for Annie, the prospect of being thrown out on the streets again.

But even that anxiety is overwhelmed by the realization that some sexual perversity may have infected the children under her care. She's desperate to protect them, but this threat is a terrifying conundrum on which her own life experience can shed no light. Barry handles the situation with disorienting subtlety. Indeed, in our current climate of panic about sexual abuse, his decision to leave this issue unresolved is daringly unfashionable, but probably truer to the mysterious nature of children.

Ultimately, the novel rises above these terrors, just as Annie rises above her bitterness. Rarely has the precious interaction between the old and the young been captured in such beauty and tenderness. Indeed, old women aren't a popular subject for fiction, though they probably make up a majority of readers. Anita Brookner has made something of a specialty of it, but it takes a well-calibrated microscope to detect the intricate development of her spinsters. Annie's raging progress, by contrast, breaks down the doors.

When a male author creates a female narrator, that's usually the focus of everyone's praise or censure, but Barry carries it off here with such fidelity that it goes without saying. Annie, so impressed by her own wickedness and so outraged by the world's injustice, finally can say, "I lift my face to the light and am amazed again at what great pleasures there are to be had on this earth."

That's just the feeling readers will have looking up from the pages of this remarkable novel.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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