Plume 531 pp.
I got a nice big stack of new books for Christmas this year. It could have been a little daunting as to where to start, but there were a couple in there that had just recently gone on my wish-list and that I was curious to crack open. The first was Edna O’Brien’s recent memoir, Country Girl and the other was the The Country Girls trilogy — The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss. The first of these novels, The Country Girls, was published in 1960, created a scandal and shortly afterwards was banned in Ireland. It was called “a smear on Irish womanhood”. It was decried from the pulpit, burned in public by the author’s parish priest and earned O’Brien a reputation as a ‘sexy’ writer. I didn’t read the book at the time — I was a bit young and it was, after all banned — and somehow, over the years I never got to it, despite O’Brien’s reputation as a literary heavy-weight.
It’s the story of Caithleen (Kate) Brady and her friend Brigid (Baba) Brennan and their life in rural Ireland in the mid-1940s. Occurring in the same times as those depicted in Tarry Flynn (reviewed some months ago), there is an air of sexual repression and a society that is inward-looking, backward and conservative. The narrator is Caithleen, quiet, studious and obedient. She’s a romantic and longs for love. Baba, on the other hand, is brash, narcissistic but vibrant and alive and longs for experiences — the experiences of a single woman. Through much of the book Baba is annoying and unsympathetic. It’s only over time that one realizes that she’s the rebel of the two — or rebel up to a point. I’ve not read the whole trilogy, but from all appearances, she’s the one who finds love and Kate seems to be destined for disappointment.
I’ve been reading O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl alongside this novel and it is clear that much of the novel is autobiographical. O’Brien’s father was a feckless and often violent drunk who let his estate dwindle into ruin and various other characters in the novel are obviously based on real people. But O’Brien’s big sin was to show the world the nature of the society in which she lived in and how beneath all that ‘respectability’ were people - women - with strong yearnings and desires.
Again, though scandalous in its day, there is something oddly innocent about this book today. In many ways, it’s a lovely depiction of rural Ireland and a simpler way of life. There is much sadness to be seen in people’s lives but much warmth, too. And there’s an odd acceptance of this life — Kate’s deference to men, her blindness to abuse as affection — that make her rebellion seen lonely and hardly worth it. And yet deep in its core I’m reminded of Stephen Dedalus and his motto “Non Serviam” — I will not serve — the sin for which Lucifer was cast from Heaven.