She wrote about all of us, and she lived as she wrote. This is a memoir you won’t forget.
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Discovering Edna O’Brien was like discovering sex. Part shame, much pleasure, and all of it so undeniably real, my stumbling upon her writing in my teens was, for a while, the great private thrill of an otherwise mundane suburban existence.
O’Brien’s own life couldn’t have been more different. By the time I first read The Country Girls, her 1960 debut, she had long left her rural Irish home and even her Swinging London years were far behind. It didn’t matter: her pinpoint eye and shockingly evocative language made conservative County Clare as real, more real, than anything at the mall. Edna O’Brien was earthy without being salacious, heartbreaking but not sentimental. What Edna O’Brien wrote was true.
How true, we now find out in Country Girl, her first and stellar memoir. In a series of vignettes, scenes from memory as polished as river stones, O’Brien, now 82, takes us from demure rural poverty – her father the weak scion of local gentry – to her convent education, with its crushes and arbitrary cruelty. Then, “the world with all its sins and guile and blandishments… beckoning”, she makes her way to Dublin, and her literary and sexual awakening. A brief marriage, her only, ties her down just as she finishes an apprenticeship as a pharmacist, and she gives up her first chance at financial independence for motherhood.
Writing would save her, as books had been her salvation early on: “Why was it only in books that I could find the utter outlet for my emotions?” The furor surrounding the publication of that first novel, with its frank depiction of female sexuality, was pronounced. “The postmistress, who happened to be Protestant, told my father that a fitting punishment would be for me to be kicked naked through the town.” But she had found herself, and Country Girl takes us along through love and loss and literature to an elegiac present-day dusk, “the violet hour of The Waste Land,” and one final encounter.
Mixing the mythic (lovers are given literary pseudonyms) with the specific, O’Brien wields words with an uncompromising eye. As unsparing as Colette, she must suffer from perfect recall. Writing of her an early encounter with a brusque beau, she says: “When he removed my silk stocking and flung them into a nether corner, two unnerving thoughts arose, one that my sister or [roommate] Anna would return early and the other that the stockings, which had been twice to the invisible menders, would not survive this brawl and could not be repaired with nail varnish.” As dreamy as Ellen Gilchrist, she conjures a “golden and vaporish” Heaven and rooms “full of light,” without denying the shadows.
It’s funny, now, to note the praise from her male colleagues. Philip Roth penned the introduction to A Fanatic Heart (1984), I realized today, pulling the yellowed paperback from my shelf. Even back in the day, her genius was recognized, albeit in a backhanded manner. Her husband, upon reading The Country Girls, remarked, “You can write and I will never forgive you,” a comment O’Brien calls “the death knell of the already ailing marriage.” By virtue of her courage as well as her considerable beauty, O’Brien was always popular with men.
But her books? They’re about us, about all of us, and we should be the ones to read them.
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