Reviews

A smart, sophisticated read about the psychology and effects of lost love, broken relationships grief and guilt, which makes a familiar story feel new.

Edel Coffey writing about “WHERE THEY LIE” (The Sunday Times, July 2014)

“Ultimately, Where They Lie is a kind of darkly passionate tribute to the lost, and, most particularly, to those who are left behind. It is a compelling, compassionate and astonishing read.”
Maureen Boyle, Lights Out NI (Culture NI)

Timing, while not quite everything in writing, certainly helps. Perhaps Mary ODonnell permitted herself a little smile when she discovered that her new book about the disappeared was coming out so soon after the Gerry Adams arrest and questioning over the disappearance of Jean McConville . . . It is a timeless story of loss, grief and tribal loyalties . . . The story moves with pace and tension . . . Where They Lie is beautifully plotted, but it is the exploration of difference - between North and South, between different shades of cultural conformism - that remains with the reader.- David Robbins, The Irish Independent, 24th July, 2014.

By placing her focus firmly on the psychology of grief and what happens across time when tragedy deploys in a familys life, ODonnell makes this book about so much more than the Troubles . . . It is the characters who are the main attraction, however, and they steal the show with their subtle complexities. ODonnells portrayal of womens sexuality is unusual in that it represents them as self-aware and confident . . . Edel Coffey, (The Sunday Times, July 2014)

Lying in its older sexual meaning also comes into it . . . Monaghan-born ODonnell is terrific at teasing out the distance between men and women, not least in the shape of Niall, a personable if unreliable man who has begun to doubt his capacity for handling womens sorrows. No wonder that Celtic Tiger Dublin, in which much of this novel is very deliberately set, with all its acutely-observed sense of freedom, opportunity, and shaking off the worst of the past, provides such an escape from the claustrophobic oppressiveness of Belfast. . . . By turns lyrical and angry, this passionate novel forensically examines one of the mos painful traumas of Irelands recent past and makes something altogether strange and lovely from it.- Eilis OHanlon, The Sunday Independent, June 8th, 2014

The theme of closure permeates her new novel. Each of the four main characters is struggling for resolution . . . beautifully noted interior conflicts give depth and bring the characters and their plights to life . . . Shrewd observations are made on a range of contemporary issues: the consumerism of Dublin in the boom; an immigrant community building a home; the draws and difficulties of monogamy; religion as a saviour from the incomprehensible sadness of the modern world. Cultural and societal divides are examined with a keen eye for detail that speaks of ODonnells upbringing in a border town in Monaghan. [She] excels in her portrayal of relationships . . .- Sarah Gilmartin, The Irish Times, August 30th, 2014.

A beautifully written and compelling story- The Gloss, July 2014.

Where They Lie may be completely fictional, but it explores one of Northern Irelands most raw and painful subjects - the Disappeared, albeit through invented characters and situations.- Audrey Watson, The Belfast Telegraph, May 25th, 2014.


 

Storm Over Belfast

Sunday Tribune Interview 6th July 2008

Click here to view part 1

Click here to view part 2

Review from the IRISH MAIL ON SUNDAY by Sheena Davitt

Mary O'Donnell's short stories seem to capture perfectly the inner voices of a strikingly varied collection of characters ... 'Fado, Fado' is that rare thing: a balanced depiction of the Celtic Tiger, in which a father's concerns about his daughter's first forays into Dublin's mall culture are set against his unsentimental memories of the darker, authoritarian upbringings of a previous generation of his
family.

'Little Africa' (is) a moving account of an African boy's adjustment to his new life in contemporary Ireland. It is another virtuoso demonstration of O'Donnell's ability to create compelling characters and offers a portrait f Irelad from an outsider's perspective. With her uncannily accurate skewering of a range of subjects, her ability to get down on the page how people actually think, and her wonderful eye for detail, O'Donnell's writing is of the type that gives realism a good name.


Review in The Irish Times, Sat, May 24, 2008

A touch of class
DEREK HAND

SHORT STORIES:Mary O'Donnell's stories shine a brilliantly
illuminating light on the modem Irish world of middle-class unease

IRELAND IS SUPPOSEDLY a classless society, free of the rigid demarcations that underpin the lives lived in other places and other nations. Of course, we know better: there is class in Ireland, but no one wants to make it exactly dear what the rules and regulations that govern its operation might actually be. Androids might dream of electric sheep, but the huddled masses of the Irish coping class also dream their dreams. And it is those dreams, and indeed nightmares, which are played out in Mary O'Donnell's new collection of short stories, Storm Over Belfast.

The focus of these stories ranges over a variety of situations and themes. From the disturbing portrayal of a father being confronted with his teenage daughter's burgeoning sexuality in Fadó, Fadó, to the predicament of a mother coming to realise the permanency of motherhood and its responsibilities in Charlie, St Joseph, Big-Hands God; from the superbly drawn battle between knowing old age and the indifferent arrogance of youth in Come to Me, Maitresse, to the understated nervousness of two college girls' summer spent working in Germany in the quietly effective Yugoslavia of My Dreams. Anger, fear, confidence and insecurity - all the modern emotions - provide the fulcrum round which these stories find their energies and revolve.

No liaison is ever presented as anything other than perplexingly complicated and all are suitably imbued with a potential for venomous interaction.

There is often an underlying violence, both real and implied, in these exchanges, as O'Donnell teases out the endless positioning for power and authority that marks modern relationships in terms of career, friends and family.

The sex act becomes one more element in this struggle for dominance, one more site where the cruelties can be worked through. Though not all unions are so negatively drawn: for instance, the couple in Strong Pagans, challenged by the husband's fetish for crossdressing, do come to a place of mutual understanding.

While there is darkness in some of these tales, the light touch of comedy is never too far away. Canticles, a story about a young music student's disappointment with her tutor's casually superior indifference, captures vividly the deliciously malicious possibility inherent in human relations, as the now-grown-up student exacts her revenge at the story's close. And Jethro, with decisive brevity, pokes fun at the pretentiousness of hippydippy parents and their hopes for their son's journey toward enlightened self-expression.

The world inhabited by O'Donnell's characters is up-to-date and contemporary: the semiotics of texting is on display, as are the Celtic Tiger Irish who now can live anywhere, in places where Irishness defines itself in relation to a wider world of reference. These cosmopolitan characters move to, and through, Australia, France, the cityscape and the rural scene effortlessly.

These are stories mostly of the Irish professional classes, such as academics and radio producers. Many stories have at their centres artist figures, with writers especially being focused on. It is a curious thing, how from the 19th century onward the figure of the artist embodies the modern conception of middle-class life, manifesting both that class's virtues, and its faults, most clearly.

Funnily enough, in the post-religious age, the artist - or the image of the artist in literature - has become the new secular arbiter of taste and morality, defining the codes by which we live.

The artist, too, is something of a dreamer and perfectly placed therefore to dream for the modern middle-classes. But of what do they dream?

Allegedly, of course, we dream of SUVs and holiday homes, of a better tomorrow. But Mary O'Donnell knows we dream of the possibility of dreaming itself. With these stories she shines a brilliantly illuminating light on the modern Irish world of middle-class anxious unease.

Hers are refreshingly grown-up, adult stories, centred on the desires, and the disappointments, of characters making choices that cannot be unmade or, indeed, made again. As a poet O'Donnell possesses an eye for detail the clutter of modem life in the form of material possessions, but also an eye for the subtleties of character.

There is too. a poet's stillness to be found in this often precise prose, a stillness appropriate to the nature of the revelations on offer to the reader.

Derek Hand is a lecturer in English in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra He has lust co-edited a special issue of the Irish University Review on the work of Benedict Kiely, which is due out next
month

Storm Over Belfast By Mary O'Donnell New lsland.246pp.


The Ark Builders

from Stride Magazine October 2009.

Noah Never Rests
The Ark Builders by Mary O’Donnell
In both subtle and striking ways, one senses that Mary O’Donnell’s most recent poems are shifting almost imperceptibly between past, present and projected future experience. In ‘The Bee-Keeper’s Son’, the longest of the poems forming her new volume, the speaker frets ‘he has not/come to his senses, where all at last/is pure synthesis.’ However, in closing the same poem O’Donnell soon indicates the tiny leaps which inform the seamless transitions so central to her writing:
            Each three century span, they quicken, at peace
            With sounds from within the ark: plane, chisel, blade,
            At peace with what’s beyond: creaking ropes, the mast
            Drying in the sun, a gentle slop of water as the hull cuts on,
            On, always west, following the sun. At night
            Before sleep, each boy takes a bee in his palm on trust:
            A gesture, a touching, creature to creature.
The separate concerns associated with Northern and Southern Irish poets remain blurred in O’Donnell’s output. As with her five previous collections, The Ark Builders reflects her affinity to both British influences and the heritage of the Irish Republic where she still lives in County Kildare. Born in 1954, O’Donnell has seen huge shifts in her lifetime, mainly towards the construction of the so-called New Ireland. Many of the more absorbing poems reveal a simultaneous optimism and anxiety about what those moves might mean for the future, so that the disquieting effect of nationalist and religious bigotry becomes meshed with hope of more multicultural and pro-European ways of living, as in the ambitions ‘Growing into Irish Through Galicia.’ Not only does this poem subvert the speaker’s clichéd expectation of Irishness through some young Spaniards who ‘perform with Uilleann pipes,/bodhrán, barrelling rhythms, wrist-flex, shoulder-roll,/ the music of ancient fields and isolation,/ where rain drenches memory.’ but O’Donnell also insists upon the necessity of personal transformation if traditionally entrenched and complacent attitudes are to be overcome so that a nation’s self-awareness can be allowed to grow.

The third stanza confirms that this poem is really about the act of nationalistic disability itself: how one must learn to navigate through language, politics, culture and history with an open mind:
Late learner, half-blind, tone-deaf.
Not your fault of course,
blame background, the Border, the bashful
silk of English,
one language hushed by the rhythms of the other,
until this rush to the senses.
Absolving the self is problematic and O’Donnell’s speaker ridicules herself for being a stranger; for having an outsider’s miscomprehension; and most tellingly, for her own naïve desires and yet she still hopes to find something truly authentic when ‘No longer backed up against the tide,/ the shell of your hearing opens,/ old words roll like sand in mussel-flesh,’ grit to a pearl.’ This strain of optimism dominates the poem’s ending whereby she can ‘expand, singing out hellos,/ Ireland to Galicia and back again.’
Moments of transition are also prominent in a number of poems where O’Donnell becomes more concerned with what she alludes to in one title as ‘Ageing Girls’ whose cosmetic obsessions seem bound up with female creativity and sexual desire. These themes also carry other connotations in further poems: especially as O’Donnell is much given to setting her women in versions of art history. In ‘The Sisters of Viareggio’, for example, she transposes a Renaissance painted composition to express something of institutionalised motherhood . . . Likewise, a familiar painted image from the past dominates ‘Café Terrace at Night 1888’, a poem which again relies on the writer’s visual exactness: ‘This morning I turn to those yellows // On Van Gogh’s café terrace,/ Atavistic, darkly cottoned, like / The woman with the red shawl, // Head inclined like a bird.’

These painterly poems are the highlight of this moving and emotionally precise collection. At her best, O’Donnell discovers the unflinching directness with which both visual art and literature can communicate with us in times of deliberation and confusion. All through her production of these poems, as the title of the volume so aptly suggests, we can sense a constant and emphatic plea for a new beginning.


From Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Vol. 9 No. 2 April 2010.

Reviewer: Wena Poon
Title: Like Cliffs of Granite

Someone annoyed me recently when citing his favourite poets. They're all dead white men. Does he read anything by anyone alive? I mean, what is he, still in school?

Mary O'Donnell is an Irish poet. That fact alone does not command attention in the international community. I think of her as the Julianne Moore of poetry. Moore did not attract Hollywood attention in her younger days because (I read) she was viewed as someone with classically pretty looks, which were a dime a dozen in that world. But she just kept soldiering on, and now, she is indisputably at the top of her game.

Like Moore, O'Donnell suffers from a crowded playing field. Ireland needs another poet like the world needs another stray kitten. It's hard nto get noticed. In fact, The Irish Times calls her the 'secret unseen star of Irish writing'. If I were O'Donnell, I would be bloody annoyed. Fat lot of good that does to me, to be secret and unseen, when I'm trying to show the world something amazing.
O'Donnell's poetry is so good I would not bat an eyelid if you told me that it was by one of those dead white men who were assigned to us English majors in college. Yes, this is a compliment from my tacky, ill-bred, cynical self.

The poems in The Ark Builders could have been written by a long-lost contemporary of Philip Larkin. Her poems resound with the metaphysical brass of John Donne, with the occasional strain of A.E.Housman, and a little melodic gurgle of Edward Thomas.
In fact, these poems are exactly what these guys would have written if they were a 50-something Irish woman with teenage children today. It's not her fault that she inherited their brains and intelligence. Their aesthetics and sensibility are quite thrilling when played through the instrument that is a modern woman.

Irish culture in 2010 is in a weird, in-between state, and The Ark Builders captures that perfectly. I love the poem acknowledging Celtic roots in the remote western coast of Spain, 'Growing into Irish through Galicia'. I can imagine writing something like that if I ever run into Chinese in Cuba. 'Les francais sont arrivés' is a splendid complaint about tourism in Ireland and how locals cannot really fault foreigners for their ignorance because they themselves have only a murky grasp of their past. 'The Poulnabrone Dolmen' is an honest, simple sketch of the poet lingering among ancient rocks while having to deal with her teenage daughter's contempt of her Irish heritage.
But O'Donnell is not always serious. I like the subversive 'Summer, Salsomaggiore', in which a woman at a wedding party looks across the dance floor and notices a bored husband. She fantasises about taking his hand and running into the damp woods to make tempestuous love in "a madness of leaves" and "gummy gnats". You know that's what Keats secretly wished of Fanny Brawn when writing 'Ode to a Nightingale'.

As a city rat, I love the wet feel of nature in the poems and th eraw, fresh sensibility. I love how each poem is not conscious of itself being a poem. And I love how, although they are clearly written by a woman, they are not feminine, but are strong, beautiful, yet genderless, like a big old granite cliff.

I know there are few occasions in life - unless you're still in university - to read a book of poems. That's why I am goign to give you some context. This book is perfect if you: are a thinkng woman and frustrated by feminine namby-pamby writing and chick-lit - this is the shot of espresso that you need; have always wanted to see the raw countryside of Ireland but were afraid that it is too far away and too cold; have always wanted to visit Dublin and understand it as analysed by an insider; are suffering from tourist clichés of Ireland and wonder what contemporary Irish people really think of themselves; love the delicious language of escape and wild, far-flung places; OR are sick of reading amateur poems about Nothing At All. Her poems are always about Something.

If I ask you who are your favourite poets, and all you can recite is a list that looks like the table of contents in The Norton Anthology, you really have to get out more. To reverse years of flawed university education, let me let you in on a secret: Poets need not be dead to be any good.


From the English journal Assent (formerly Poetry Nottingham), review by Julia Gaze.

It's the end of the world. Or a beginning.
(History of Happen)

The Ark is the vessel which ensures the survival of the old world, through cataclysmic change, into the new. It embodies a faith in continuity through change. Mary O'Donnell's most recent collection 'The Ark Builders', expresses the faith that each moment is lived within a continuum of change and new beginnings. It isn't, however, merely a collection of feel-good reflections on the passing of time. O'Donnell's poetry contains an ethic: a project.

This project is linked to O'Donnell's relationship with language. In her introduction to 'The Place of Miracles', she calls language 'my alchemist's bag, usually open'. Her poetry conveys the impression of language as a catalyst and reactor, charging and charged by experience. Pitched against this impression however, is a notion of language as a site of stagnation. In 'History of Happen', O'Donnell says that what "holds us back" from recognizing every moment as pivotal, is an "etiqueet of speech"; denied freedom and fluidity, language becomes a restrictive force. These two sides of language - the alchemic and the restrictive - are reminiscent of Bakhtin's theory: There is an on-going struggle between centripetal and centrifugal forces in language ... an opposition between monologic and dialogic utterance (The Bakhtin Reader, 1997).

If monologic utterance is speech which attempts to arrest and isolate meaning, dialogic utterance calls for a fluid, inclusive approach.
O'Donnell's poetry, then, is dialogic. It demands an openness on the part of the reader; it delights in drawing unlikely registers together; it is playful, challenging and surprising. At the last, it constitutes a protest against the stagnation of "etiquette" and expresses a belief in an underlying, pre-linguistic core of language - which is joyful, vital and fun. The final stanzas of 'History of Happen', describe children playing:

Whoosh. Shee. Hoo-ooo. Hawhhh...
The wind, skilled articulator, artful dancer

doing pas de deux with us alone,
ardent fans of the invisible and active.

These oppositional capacities in language - the arresting and the freeing - can be regarded as a kind of synedoche for oppositional forces in human thought in general. O'Donnell is especially interested in the way we think about identity; specificaly gender and national identity. The first section of the collection explores femininity both as a proscription imposed from the outside, and as a performance. Within this section there is the constant sense of an unruly, chaotic element within, threatening to break out and overrun a delicately balanced order, whether it be in the form of madness (Dialogue with Madam Alexei), facial hair (Following Frida), drunken exuberance (Summer, Salsomaggiore) or the freedom from responsibilities and the invisibility of old age. This chaotic potential, however, is not a will to shock or a political liberation. Old women "don't spit or wear purple" (Girls of the Nation). The hysterical woman still manages "a day of living/behind her own face/ ... insanely sane" (Dialogue) and women still "wax the in-betweens" (Following Frida). While women, in O'Donnell's poems, are complicit in their own oppression, she is adept at revealing, with the lightest of touches, the complex web of control - an interplay of ideologies embedded within consumerism, religion, art and social expectations - which circumscribe their lives.
From within the web, however, inklings of freedom - of new possiblities, beam out. In 'Girls of the Nation' she describes older women as:

Secret atheists, they believe in hothing.
Only that final shredding when all they have discovered
is unlearned again.

Unlearning or forgetting is important for O'Donnell. 'An Amnesiac in Dublin' begins:

I know this city like my hand,
read and re-read a palmist's map
to a forgotten dream.
How reliable is that?

This is from the second section of the collection, where O'Donnell focuses on the subject of 'Irishness'. Often presenting de-centred points of view, she deconstructs mythologies, stereotypes and cliché to reveal the palimpsestic constructedness of Irish national identity . . . Elsewhere in this section, O'Donnell, in more sardonic mood, mocks "visions of the way we never were"; locals hawking "artisan breads" and growing "emerald cabbages" (Les Francais sont arrivés, die Deutschen Auch), or describes how her teenage daughter, on whom she tried to "inflict" her "Celtic marvels", resists the culture that "tells her things/she does not want to know" (The Poulnabrone Dolmen).
Like the melting ice in 'Heat', whose "only message is of earth's dementia", place, in these poems, embodies a polyphonic, constantly shifting meaning for its inhabitants. in 'An Amnesiac in Dublin', O'Donnell captures the complex interaction of historically and racially divided cultures in the city:

Hamburg-meets-Dublin, unofficial pimps
work the river's walled thighs ...
The Quays still tilt as in Gaudi.

The third section of the collection draws on O'Donnell's experience as a translator and promoter of European poetry, and sees a widening of the field to the international. In the linguistically rich and tightly controlled 'Growing into Irish through Galicia', O'Donnell explores how, if one keeps an open mind, encounters with other cultures can lead to personal transformation. The speaker in the poem, who has been vainly "pitting her native tongue" against Galician, hears young Galicians playing "Uilleann pipes". The unexpected music, bringing her back to her native Irish culture, provides "a rush to the senses" which culminates in a sudden comprehension of the Galician:

...the shell of your hearing opens,
old words roll like sand in mussel-flesh,
grit to a pearl
...
              ... your tongue unsprung:
it fills your mouth like hymns

The poems about loss and pain in the collection are starkly honest and moving. Once again we see O'Donnell opening herself to the experience of loss, wondering what and how she can elarn. The aftertaste left by this collection, however, is overwhelmingly one of O'Donnell's warm and playful optimism; especially in poems like 'Misirlou' and 'Star Reading for a Young Poet', where, at the point when the young poet opens her mouth "All that was molten/on her tongue has the form/of her future". 'The Ark Builders' is a call for all of us to open our minds and immerse ourselves in the joyful language-in-process flow of endless new beginnings.


Some critical responses to 'September Elegies':

From The Irish Times (3rd October, 2003)

Kevin Myers, writing in The Irish Times (3 October) remarked that 'The death of her father last year informs and inspires many of the poems. Needless to say these are not maudlin affairs, but studied and gentle meditations upon life and love, upon the vital, unimportant details of daily existence, and upon the tiny quotidian duties of those who attend upon the last days of a loved one's life. ' Further on he remarks 'She is good on sex too: 'The Muse Demands My Tongue' should be read and remembered by every teenage girl as a lode-stone, a guide towards that strange place where heart and vulva meet. in other words, she does Eros very well indeed - sensuously, warmly, tenderly and always with humour.'

From poet Michael Coady comes the following commentary:
'This elegantly cadenced work shows Mary O'Donnell in mature possession of her distinctive voice and vision. In poems that seek 'to be true to the light and dark/ in each of us', the inner and outer search for meaning and fulfillment finds shapely utterance in the book's structured progression through the haunted towards the consolatory and on to the elegiac and tender. The transcendent is occasionally encountered ('the marvellous incarnate') and articulated in a register that is characteristically scrupulous, sensuous and subtle. Against the clear-eyed awareness that 'everything is borrowed' and that love 'rides on the brink of nothing', love remains the grounded act of faith that may exalt, transfigure and redeem the human experience and its mystery.


Some critical responses to 'The Elysium Testament':

From The Evening Press (5th November, 1999)

David Robbins finds himself highly impressed by Mary O'Donnell's latest work, The Elysium Testament.

Mary O'Donnell's new book is hard to define. It is full of mystery, yet it is not a thriller; it is an elegiac testament to a relationship, yet it is not a romance; it deals with our fear of the supernatural, yet it is not a horror story. It is, however, a powerful and beautifully-written novel.
Mary O'Donnell's first novel The Light-Makers, was published to critical acclaim in 1992. She is also an accomplished poet and broadcaster on literature. Her poet's instinct comes through strongly in her writing of The Elysium Testament.
The story is told by Nina in what is surely the longest suicide note in literary history. Her child Roland has died and she is writing to her ex-husband Neil, explaining how it all went wrong.
Surprisingly, the device works well, as the layers of what happened to Roland are peeled back one by one. Along the way, the story of Nina and Neil's marriage is told touchingly.
Nina is a restorer of grottoes, again surely a first for the profession of a novel's main protagonist. Her work on the restoration of a Co. Kildare cave is a metaphor for her retreat from what was happening to her marriage - and to her son.
Roland is Neil and Nina's second child. He is a special child, and the descriptions of him reminded me of the psychic child in the movie Poltergeist. Just how special he is becomes apparent when Nina sees him levitate, firstly, and bizarrely, over a pool of spilled Worcester sauce.
O'Donnell creates the special atmosphere that surrounds Roland, and as her description of him gradually deepens, the reader is aware of the Christ parallel: here is a child with powers the world cannot understand and must, therefore, destroy.
There are two set-pieces: a party thrown by Neil and Nina in their home by the weir in Lucan, and the final climactic scene in the restored grotto. Both are beautifully handled.
As Nina writes her long letter of self-justification, she begins her journey to self-forgiveness, and the novel ends on a note of hope. The power of O'Donnell's writing makes the plot, which sounds almost laughable when blandly told, seem real. It is a fine achievement.

From The Irish Times, (4th December, 1999): The Parent trap

Review by Kathy Cremin
The Elysium Testament is a savage exploration of the primal forces of transgression, fear and death. The narrative takes the form of an extended letter written by Nina to her husband, who has left her following the death of their four-year old son, Roland. Nina's letter - confessional, diary, suicide note - begins on Hallowe'en and continues over six haunted weeks as she tries to make sense of her son's death.
Elysium is the name both of the house where Nina now lives alone and of the grotto she most recently worked on. As a highly-sought-after restorer, Nina's work takes her to once-decadent estates to re-create lush caverns dedicated to Greek and Roman gods, ornate monuments to the mysteries of nature, fertility and excess. Through the beauty of rocks, crystals and ancient architecture, Nina believed herself and her husband to be in touch with the suppressed and sensuous world evoked by the decadent Monoan groggos - far from the spiritless, messed-up anaemia that passes for normality.
The passion triggered by destruction and death has terrible consequences, which unravel as the Elysium grotto, Nina's masterpiece of illusion, reaches completion. In pursuit of its perfection, Nina had escaped Roland for long periods. Her recognition of the boy's mysterious condition filled her with unease, and though she attempted to repress her feelings, her relationship with Roland became increasingly fraught.
What emerges is a record of Nina's failure to understand and accept her son's uncanny ways and her subsequent murderous desires to hurt and destroy aspects of his personality. The Elysium Testament is a provocative novel that bravely explores unspeakable secrets and the denial and complicity that surround terror in families. O'Donnell's writing is stark, clear and grimly witty, recalling the dark fables of Helen Dunmore or Michele Roberts.
There is, too, a dark, gothic aspect to this tale. The antiquated, half-forgotten groggos, decorated with bizarre objects like things picked from the underside of the human imagination, relate to the suppressed emotions of guilt, sin and fear which endure long after the forms of religion have been dispensed with. At the heart of the book is revealed a moral question for our times: what happens when a parent fails to thrive?

Emer Martin (author of 'More Bread or I'll Appear' Houghton Mifflin 1999) writes as follows (on Amazon.com): 'One of the most extraordinary things about this book is its portrayal of the ordinary middle class Irish family, which has often been ignored in modern Irish fiction or dismissed entirely … The writing sparkles with intense wit and Nina is extremely funny in her observations … A startling story of modern day saints, psychiatrists, twins real and imagined, dealing with the split self, the damaged self and ultimately and triumphantly, the transcendent self. Highly recommended.'

From the RTE Guide, (4th November, 1999)

This is a thoughtful, cerebral tale of motherhood, or art, of fragility, of life, of life's denial. Mary O'Donnell has taken an image and run with it, built on it. It's a disturbing and daring exploration.

From The Sunday Tribune (24th October, 1999)

This is writing at its purest and most powerful. Bravely exploring grief and guilt O'Donnell encapsulates heartbreak in a novel which is alternately terse and lyrical. She slices open a middle-class Irish family to reveal the tragedy which has a mother contemplating suicide. A successful architect whose specialty is restoring follies and grottoes, she is wrapped up in her work and in her affair with a colleague. Slowly we learn that her four-year-old son is not only neglected but beaten by her. She fears his powers, supernatural powers she herself had as a child. Distraught by the death of the child she sometimes hated, her urge to suicide seems logical.
Far from being a flight of fancy, The Elysium Testament is grounded in harsh psychological truth and is both horrifying and spellbinding It shows throughout that the author is also a poet.

From The Sunday Independent (14th November, 1999)

Review by Emer O'Kelly

Mary O'Donnell writes exhilarating, almost enthralling prose. That's the first thing that emerges from her third novel, The Elysium Testament. Her style is pellucid, the light seeming to glow from deep within the thought processes; but in almost stark contrast, the colours are etched with a miniaturist's brush, finely detailed, and so accurately expressive of the writer's purpose that they seem almost insultingly simple.
But there's nothing either simple or insulting about this intensely felt, metaphysical novel. Ostensibly, it tells the story of the breakdown of a marriage, and or how the bewildering, destructive love/hate of a mother for a mysterious child can bring about that breakdown.
But the novel is much more: it explores obsession, and fear of the unknown recesses of the human mind. Above all, it describes in pitiless detail the way absorption with beautiful form (in this case the restoration of ancient grottoes) can freeze the human spirit when it's untempered by the turbulent practicalities of love's generosity.
Nina's terror of what increasingly appears to be evidence of the saintly paranormal is echoed from her own bullied childhood, when, driven to swim competitively by a domineering father, she had visions of her dead mother as she ploughed through the chlorinated pool water.
and if Roland is heautoscopic, as the psychologists say (that is, he sees a doppelganger), Nina too has a doppelganger in her twin Hugon, who also plays a part in the tragedy that is precipitated.
O'Donnell weaves the thread of her complex thesis into a magic carpet of crawling horror: that a mother can torture in the pursuit of perfection, that learning can destroy passion, that beauty can be fiercely ugly.
The story is told in retrospect as Nina, her life in ruins and close to total nervous collapse, writes a series of maddened self-justifying testaments to her estranged husband. There is ultimate redemption for her, but even that is bleak, a harsh re-entry into a world in which she has always been an outsider.
But the literary achievement lies in the language which manufactures this psychologically surreal world:
"I watched the shadowy impring of the sun through the flying fog. It hung like a leaden ball and I thought, this is it. This lamp, ball, light, coalescence, is all there is. When it dies, and when the solar flares stop flaring, so will the seasons. So will we …"
And even in Nina's redemption, we remember only her eerie foresight, in this novel of soaring, elegant perception.

From The Irish Times, (23rd October, 1993)

'Spiderwoman's Third Avenue Rhapsody'
Review by Sean Dunne

Mary O'Donnell's new collection confirms the power and value of a voice which had its first outing in Reading the Sunflowers in September (1990). Quite simply, she is shaping up as one of the best poets in the place. The energetic title poem, with its shadow of Ginsberg, is not, as the blurb claims, ''stunning'' rather, her gift, which is distinguished by a strong and subtle awareness of language, is shown at its most assured in shorter poems.
There lies history an dartefact,
small arrows, darts,
a favourite tomahawk
dropped by a fleeing Indian,
splinters from a canoe
that shot the Hudson cataracts,
glistening with fish
while the future slept.

Encompassing America and Maynooth, and with themes that include a famine field, childbirth and Eve, Spiderwoman's Third Avenue Rhapsody offers a portrait of 'an original pilgrim/ who has seen/ something/ in cloud-ships/ ripe leaves/ the dripping wind'