Regina McBride is an elegiac novelist, consistently impressive, her stories shrouded in the mist of the Emerald Isle where myth permeates the lives of her characters. As in her previous novels, The Land of Women and The Nature of Water and Air, The Marriage Bed is a combination of the old and new, where the past seeps into the present. Wholly fleshed, the female protagonists are exquisitely nuanced, exploring their deepest longings and secret fears, surrounded by the turbulent beauty of the Irish coast.
Deirdre is delivered to the convent of Enfant de Marie by an anxious grandmother, admonished to keep secret the true story of her parent's deaths, an incident Deirdre has pushed into her subconscious, burying memories that threaten her peace of mind. In the dank environment of cloistered halls, shadowy candlelit corridors and prayerful murmurings, Deirdre is desperately unhappy, fourteen years old and far from anything familiar.
Painfully lonely, Deirdre casts about for something to capture her imagination. One of the other postulants, Bairbre McBreen is at the convent to fulfill familial obligations in an effort to appease a wrathful God after her mother leaves the convent to marry. Like moth to flame, once Deirdre fastens her attentions on the ethereal Bairbre, the other girl, at first resistant, succumbs to the seduction of Deirdre's fervor. Their secret meetings are tentative, questioning: "the sound of it cast a shadow like a bird that followed me along the corridor, then flew suddenly past."
But Deirdre has confused herself, drawn into a seduction she hasn't really committed to, especially once she meets Bairbre's family. The McBreen's welcome their obligation to the Church in an effort to repair past transgressions, offering a child to the service of the Lord. When Deirdre meets Bairbre's brother, Manus, she transfers her affections to the young man, believing she can be a part of this ecclesiastical family.
In Deirdre's mind, the McBreen's form their own Trinity, mother at the apex, as the lonely young woman imbues them with powers beyond their capacity. Hopelessly lost in her own imaginings of domestic harmony, Deirdre marries Manus, entering into an unholy alliance where her entire life is usurped by her mother-in-law's will, the union purged of its promising intimacy. The McBreen mansion is gothic in proportion, lushly appointed rooms contrasting with dim, stone-walled corridors leading to an alchemist's retreat.
Eventually Deirdre's daughters are caught in the McBreen web, plucked from their mother's over-protective grasp. Hollow-eyed with grief, this loss finally stimulates Deirdre to accept her own complicity. In elegant, sweeping prose, Deirdre revisits the first days of her attraction to Manus, admitting what she has previously refused to entertain: "There was a dungeon in Manus's heart." Everything leads back to the source of her fears, the unspoken tragedy she witnessed and her desperate flight from reality into the waiting arms of a woman who uses her as a pawn. After years of bending to the wishes of others, Great Blasket Island calls Deirdre home to reclaim the self she abandoned. Deirdre embraces her own past and with it reclaims her children, her life and the love of her husband.
This beautiful novel plumbs the secrets of a woman's interior and the truth of religious devotion shrouded in piety, supplicants who harbor selfish intentions. The phrases spill like pearls: "I felt as if my body were comprised of hundred of subtler bodies thin as veils, but concentrated, all ignited and brushing at each other." And everywhere the sound of the sea, hurling itself against the land of myth.