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Girlhood Memories

Country Girl
By Edna O’Brien. Faber and Faber

Reviewed by Ruth Brassington
Irish-born novelist, biographer, playwright and short-story writer Edna O’Brien offers her memoir after a 50-year award-winning writing career that includes novels, short stories and biography. Shocking Ireland with her 1960s cluster of novels The Country Girls, The Girl with Green Eyes and Girls in their Married Bliss, O’Brien was an early political feminist, even if she didn’t see herself in that light. Hers was a brave exposure of the societal hypocrisy of the time – in particular, the Irish Catholic society she grew up in – and of the happy-ever-after myth. Before marriage, girls and women were meant not only to remain virgins, they were meant to be entirely without sexual feelings. After marriage, they were meant to be contented drudges and perpetually sexually available to their husbands.

O’Brien’s realistic portrayals of girls growing into womanhood caused banning – and burning – of her first books in her home country, which she had already left for England, where she still lives. Her first novel was easy to write: “the words tumbled out, like the oats on threshing day that tumble down the shaft”. In England she was free to produce novels which became more generally political as she explored the extremes of Ireland’s problems as they affected her characters, encompassing far more than the sex and love themes of her early writing. Yet Ireland remained unhappy with her writing until this century, when her contribution to Irish literature has been honoured four times.

In this memoir, the author’s Irish voice, taking many breaths, with many commas, and “the smell of nettles so hot”, has O’Brien with us in the room. Her sentences don’t stroll so much as promenade through the high streets – and the low streets – of her past. She shares her actual life with us. But how can we know where the blur of incidents past come into focus and where they smudge off the page into fantasy? However, there are enough real people at the party – and there are plenty of parties – to ground it: Paul McCartney, Princess Margaret, Jackie Onassis, Tony Blair, and many more. Most of what she says is interesting, or at least entertaining; sometimes you wonder why she needs to tell and why you need to know.

Mixed tenses, sometimes in one sentence, add to the sense that O’Brien is telling a story. She recalls shoes, lunches, men: not so much for the thing itself as for, say, the surrounding ash-grey tissue paper, a thought about a willow pattern plate, or the memory of a dream. When she drops a childhood jar of jam on the road, a woman from a nearby garage comes out “with a worn goose wing and a bit of cardboard to sweep it up”. Her Irish Catholic background is inescapable. We hear quaint edicts of senior priests on their fruitless quest for societal purity, along with Irish and English events of the time.

O’Brien describes her early introduction to James Joyce’s writing, “where worlds within worlds unfolded”. Much later, she would write two books about him. And the words keep tumbling out – a short story collection, Saints and Sinners was published only last year. This memoir offers her own long story, her own world within a world.