The Rug by Edna O’Brien, 1963
The magic trick:
Letting a young narrator – or at least a narrator looking back at her youth – paint a loving picture of her mother
This is just about a perfect story.
You’ve got comedy, mystery and sadness. All in seven short pages.
The central portrait here is that of the narrator’s mother. She’s heroic in her self-pity. The most touching part is the way the narrator shows a mature sympathy toward her mother, even at a young age.
The story begins with her at 9 years old demonstrating wide-eye wonder over a rug. So we know she is still figuring out the world. But that just makes it all the more affecting when we see her notice subtle changes in her mother’s mood – a smile here, a mood change there. She cares about her mother, and, as a result, so do we.
And that’s quite a trick on O’Brien’s part.
“Isn’t it perfect, a perfect color scheme?” she said. The room had suddenly become cozy. She stood back and looked it with surprise, and a touch of suspicion. Though she was always hoping, she never really expected things to turn out well. At nine years old, I knew enough about my mother’s life to say a prayer of thanks that at last she had got something she wanted, and without having to work for it. She had a round, sallow face and a peculiarly uncertain, timid smile. The suspicion soon left her, and the smile came out. That was one of her happiest days; I remember it as I remember her unhappiest day to my knowledge – the day the bailiff came, a year later. I hoped she would sit in the newly appointed room on Sundays for tea, without her apron, with her brown hair combed out, looking calm and beautiful. Outside, the rhododenrons, though wild and broken, would bloom red and purple, and inside, the new rug would lie upon the richly smelling linoleum. She hugged me suddenly, as if I were the one to thank for it all; the hen mash had dried on her hands and they had the mealy smell I knew so well.
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