As The Light of Evening begins, a woman of advancing age lies in a Dublin hospital bed, seeing her years pass before her in rapid succession, "like clouds - different shapes and different colours, merging and passing one another."
Her name is Dilly, and as her life is steadily pulled out of her like pages from a book, she falls into fitful dreams where her checkered past gradually emerges. Determined to make a new life for herself away from her domineering mother and the "troubles" of Ireland, Dilly travels to New York to start a new life.
After a terrible sea voyage, Dilly is forced to go through Ellis Island where she and the other immigrants are subjected to every kind of humiliation - herded into different groups, names and numbers tagged into chests, the inspectors like hawks, looking for every sickness.
Now in America, a world that seems both strange and carnival-like, "a land of bluff and blighted dreams," Tilly finds through her cousin a room in a boardinghouse and employment as a domestic servant in the home of a bourgeois couple who advocate "nothing but rules."
It is here, in this life existing of "crush-proof blouses and coatees and capes stoles and muffs," that Tilly finds her only real friend in a fellow maid and has a love affair with a young man that ends in disaster. Finding New York a place of intense pressure, where "people are always moving on so fast," Tilly eventually returns to her roots in Ireland, where she marries and has a family.
Dilly's head chimes half a century apart, her mind constantly clogged with "memories and with muddle," always thinking of her family and her children as she disentangles the hurts they have caused her. Her son, Terence, has fallen under the influence of a grasping wife and has become as avaricious as she, and her daughter, Eleanor, has always had her head stuck in the clouds.
Eleanor, a talented writer, earns Dilly's disdain for marrying a domineering older man whom Dilly is convinced that her daughter did not love. Eleanor actually confesses that she had eloped in a trance, in haste, her docility a mask. Even her husband would always contend that Eleanor married him under the guise of love in order to further her ambitions.
Author Edna O'Brien's novel is a poetic homage to what is left unsaid, where a mother and a daughter have held each other at a distance for so long. By choosing this madman for a husband, Dilly contends that her daughter has driven a last nail in her mother's coffin, while Eleanor is unable to confide in her mother for the very simple reason that she fears she will break down completely if she confesses to her mother just how unhappy she is.
While Dilly seems to find comfort and consolation in the natural beauty of Rusheen, her family home, the place where her sorrows multiplied yet that was also so dear to her, Eleanor throws herself headlong into a surreptitious affair that does little to assuage her weighty and inconsolable grief.
Intricate, deeply compassionate and poetically resonant, The Light of Evening tells of two women held irrevocably apart by their petty disloyalties and their familial disillusionments.
Evoking the natural beauty and the windswept landscape of her beloved Ireland, O'Brien has written a deeply poignant and acutely resonant tale where memory and sorrow continue to echo down through time, forever haunting each generation.