It isn't a memoir. Edna O'Brien is emphatic about that, pointing out in interviews that large parts of the novel are pure fiction. But it does draw from O'Brien's own biography, and that explains why the voices of the mother and daughter, around which the story is constructed, sound so authentic.
"The Light of Evening" begins as Dilly, the mother, is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her illness brings her estranged daughter, Eleanora, home to Ireland. Their relationship as they each prepare for the reunion is revealed first in letters sent from mother to daughter and then in a diary.
John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle board, says although the book is dedicated both to her mother and her motherland, Ireland, O'Brien is clearly still reconciling herself to the fact that her mother was deeply unhappy that she'd become a writer.
"It's got to make a difference to a novelist as prolific and profoundly dedicated to the task as she is if the one person who brings you into the world--your creator, in essence--denies your ability to create," O'Brien says.
You can hear that intimate tension in the fictional letters that O'Brien adapted from the real ones her mother wrote almost every day.
In one letter, Dilly writes, "I saw your photograph in the paper but can I say the outfit you wore didn't do you justice...it exaggerated your figure by twice your size, the gathers and belts made you fatter. You have many ill-wishers here."
Another letter arrives after Eleanora is divorced: "It's no good living in the escapism that has been your wont. Look for the faith that you have lost, that you have thrown away."
Robert Weibezahl, a critic for the publication "BookPage," says the letters and then the diary are perfect vehicles to unveil the Byzantine relationship of these two women and the writer's own feelings.
"A lot of writers would just tell us they had no idea of their feelings, but she never tells us that," Weibezahl says. "We come to figure it out in a very elliptical way and I think that's true in all of her books."
And there are many. "The Light of Evening" is Edna O'Brien's 20th work of fiction and still she wrestles with those universal themes of love and family, loyalty and change.