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Country Girl: A Memoir by Edna O'Brien (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 18. Number 1, Spring/Earrach 2014
pp. 140-143 | 10.1353/nhr.2014.0014

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Love her or hate her, at age eighty-four, Edna O'Brien reigns as the grand dame of Irish literature. With twenty-one works of fiction plus her nonfiction and drama, she has demonstrated a prolific staying power. Her public readings still mesmerize audiences. Her haunting voice and metaphoric power can silence an auditorium. But she has paid a heavy price for success. Famously, the sexual details of her earlier novels incited book burnings in her hometown—though those details hardly seem shocking now; quite tame, actually. Initially shunned and persecuted by the Irish public for years, she has nonetheless earned a deserved literary attention, and with The Country Girls Trilogy now clearly a firmly established modern classic, the publication of a memoir was inevitable.

O'Brien's memoir delivers a predictable and selective summary of the author's life, though it does reveal a few surprises. O'Brien divides the book into four parts. The longest sections are the first two, which detail the early years in County Clare and her formative years in London, including her marriage, the birth of her two sons, and a long list of celebrity parties thrown by O'Brien. We encounter a plethora of famous names, though O'Brien omits most of the salacious details. Parts three and four contain some strange pairings: Northern Ireland politics with New York social scenes, the story of an abandoned Donegal house renovation told in tandem with an averted suicide in Singapore.

Unfortunately, as a whole the book presents only the scantest of material about O'Brien's writing process. Instead, she provides tiresome allusions to a multitude of famous writers, inviting comparisons to her own writing that fall flat and sound unbecomingly immodest. If one can get by these fairly substantial and self-indulgent negatives, then some positive sections do exist: the humbling details of the real country girl behind the fictitious one; the interesting details of O'Brien's beginnings as a writer, especially the London script writing unknown to many Americans; and her non-judgmental perceptions on the political dilemmas of the North. But those who already dislike O'Brien will find plenty to confirm their judgments here. Her style can indeed grow overblown, especially the lavish descriptions of flora and fauna, and many readers will balk at her endless dropping of names and her annoying, self-ingratiating comparisons to James Joyce. Readers searching for enlightenment on O'Brien's work habits or discovery of themes will be disappointed. However, for readers who have even a slight interest in the partying literati of the London and New York scenes of the 1960s and '70s, this book more than satisfies. And, of course, there are the juicy portions devoted to affairs with married men, even a kiss by "Adonis" Jude Law.

Still, one cannot be wholly dismissive. The memoir opens with essentially a retelling of The Country Girl, substituting Edna for Kate. Her stories of the deprivations of life in rural Ireland before and during the Emergency are memorable, as is her evocation of place. O'Brien beautifully articulates her "abiding" love for her home, Drewboro:

But in the lambent light of that August evening, with the sun going down, a bit of creeper crimsoning and latticed along an upstairs window, the whole place seemed to hold, and would forever hold for me, regardless of bungalows or a five-star hotel, the essence of itself, the thing that gave it the sacred and abiding name of Home.

Many of the episodes at Drewsboro will be familiar, as will be the language and motifs of many of her early short stories: readers will spot Eily from "A Scandalous Woman," the lonely nun from "The Doll," the motifs of broken cup handles and wounded birds. O'Brien reveals her first foray into fiction at age eight, a story titled "Gypsy," after the "charmer" who abducts her heroine Isolde away on his "steed" into the "remote mountains." And O'Brien divulges her first sexual encounter in language that echoes Stephen in Joyce's Portrait, "the world with all its sins and guile and blandishments was beckoning."

Part two discloses the marital details that scandalized some of the Irish...

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