Irish-born O'Brien (who lives in London and has written emotionally intense, mordantly funny novels and short story collections like A Fanatic Heart, 1984) turns her attention to the continuing troubles in her native land--``a beautiful tragic country to be born into''--contemplating it through the eyes and hearts of a handful of characters entangled in a violent moment. Chief, and perhaps most intriguing, among these is Josie O'Meara, a widow, dessicating in the large West Country farmhouse to which her misogynistic husband brought her as a bride many years before. A stash of IRA guns hidden on the property and an anonymous note left on the doorstep of the Guarda brought about his death, though Josie hardly seems to have mourned, for her life with him was a bitter root. But when late one night her sleep is broken by an intruder who turns out to be an IRA terrorist popularly known as the ``mad beast,'' Josie shocks herself by warming to him, writing in her journal, ``I want before I die to be myself again.'' The captor, named McGreevy, and his increasingly willing hostage talk politics--for instance, how IRA guerillas often ``get the wrong men,'' peaceable, unaligned locals who happen to get in the way of a bullet or bomb blast (this is called ``the Paddy factor'')--and about their own lives. Unaccountably, he opens up, telling her of the wife and baby daughter he lost. Then he disappears to murder an English lord, come to the area to take his boat out on the lake. Josie lies to the authorities when they interrogate her about the fugitive, though they know it and stake out her house, expecting McGreevy to return. When he does, the novel's vicious climax unfolds in a lyric swell, through which a stern note sounds--about how ``the same blood and the same tears drop from the enemy as from the self.'' No answers here, of course, but well worth reading as O'Brien's first concentrated treatment of the troubles--and the pain they visit on the Irish people.