- Note: In the Forest is based on the case of Imelda Riley, her son, and a local priest. My review below comes off as a heavy-handed critique of an institution and not the man that committed the crime. Remember I am reviewing the story, and not the case itself. This is not to say that I do not believe that criminals who commit such horrendous acts should walk free. I believe that the punishment should fit the crime.
From the first page, I was entranced by Edna O’Brien’s prose. Michen O’Kane’s tragic life is told against the backdrop of rural Ireland. This is a gothic text on the surface, Michen constantly runs from institutions and for the police, there is a sense of claustrophobia that I experienced when the narration was focalized through Michen, despite him being in the woods so much. When Michen was released from the reformatory, and later the prison, he was never really set free. Years of abuse broke his mind and his spirit he was a prisoner of himself, a slave to the voices in his head. This garners reader’s sympathy. Michen is not evil, he has done evil things, but he is not evil. He is a product of his the institutions that he had been sent to live in, I will return to this point later.
I was asked, “To what extent is In the Forest postmodern?” initially I thought this was a straight up thriller, gothic type of story, but upon further discussion, I had realized that there were postmodern elements in this text. The critique of institutions is indicative of the postmodern movement. The institution in O’Brien’s novel that is being critiqued is the prison system. I cannot say anything about what the people in Ireland think of the system in Ireland, but it is evident that O’Brien believes it to be detrimental those who are sent there for the purposes of punishment or reformation. Another distinctly postmodern element that can be found in this text is the fragmentation of identity. I know, I talked about this my review of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, but this time it’s different I swear. I won’t talk your ear off about capitalism this time, even though the pervasion of capitalism in rural Ireland is quite fascinating.
We can see that Michen’s identity is fragmented, note that as his name got shorter and shorter, (His various names and nicknames were covered fairly early in the text) the more his name was broken up, the more fragmented his identity became, at one point he was called “K” short for O’Kane. “K” bears little to no phonological or morphological resemblance to O’Kane and at the time that this name was given to him, I have no doubt that his mind and spirit were already broken beyond repair. As stated before he is a product of his institution. Let’s take a look at another text, American Pyscho by Bret Easton Ellis. Patrick Bateman is a product of the institution as well, it was not the prison system and constant abuse that shaped Bateman. It was Wallstreet. The institution created Michen the killer, we know that it is likely that Michen had suffered from mental illness as a child, him being sent to prison at such an early age only exacerbated this problem. Michen killing animals at a such a young age is an illustration of psychopathy and indicates homicidal tendencies, which he received no reprieve and no help to cope with. I will end this review with this: Patrick Bateman asks, “Is evil something that you are, or something that you do?” I do not believe that Michen is evil, he killed three people, but he was not inherently evil. What is to blame is the system. The sheep is not at fault, it is the shepherd that must repent and reform.
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