DOWN BY THE RIVER begins, deceptively, in an idyllic rural setting somewhere in Ireland. By the end, its consequences have addressed and divided the political and judicial fabric of the nation.
A crime of passion results in an emotional battlefield for one and all, with opposing factions taking militant sides. In the centre, a young girl struggles with the conflicts of mind and body, the teaching of her faith and her mounting bewilderment at what she might do.
This is her rite of passage, a stark progress from the role of child to that of woman; an initiation into terror and beyond it to wisdom.
Expatriate Irish writer O'Brien (House of Splendid Isolation, 1994, etc.) offers one of the most ferocious indictments of Gacic life and culture since The Playboy of the Western World. The case several years ago of an Irish girl who was barred by judicial decree from leaving the country to procure an abortion was bound to work its way into fiction, and O'Brien was probably the likeliest to pick it up. She adds a particularly nasty twist to the already-repugnant scenario by making 14-year-old Mary MacNamara not merely the victim of rape but of incest as well, impregnated by her father not long after Mrs. MacNamara's funeral. Ashamed and unwilling to reveal the true circumstances of her case, Mary becomes the pawn in a monstrous political game played out across the pulpits, newsrooms, and Foreign Offices of the British Isles. A kindly neighbor who takes her secretly to London is threatened with arrest and reluctantly brings the girl home, where she is kept virtually imprisoned to prevent her from terminating either her pregnancy or her life. She manages to escape into the hands of the liberals, but they have an agenda of their own, seeing in her the perfect candidate for a Supreme Court case - a case that cannot possibly be settled in time for an abortion. As the wheels of justice grind slowly, Mary becomes increasingly depressed and exhausted. The panorama of characters who wander into and around the controversy - including judges, journalists, schoolgirls, transvestites, and madwomen - give a rich background to the story, but the book's angry impact is diminished through its having been inspired by a case that was dramatic in its own right and through a presentation that is relentlessly partisan. If hard cases make bad law, it must be added that they can make pretty poor literature as well. O'Brien's propagandistic tone and two-dimensional characterizations will bring her few if any new admirers. (Kirkus Reviews)