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The Country Girls Trilogy – Andy has a grand old time with Edna, to be sure, to be …

December 21, 2014

Although, to be honest, I’m not sure. Not sure why, anyway. Why I had such a grand old time with Edna.

I remember there being a Penguin edition of The Country Girls on display in the library at Maffra High School in the ’80s. So that’s how long Edna O’Brien has been on my radar. I didn’t read it, obviously, cos I was a boy and it was written by a chick and it had the word “girls” in the title. But for whatever reason I remember it.

ednaO’Brien published The Country Girls in 1960. The Lonely Girl was published in 1962 and Girls in their Married Bliss (yes, it’s ironic – actually no, it’s sarcastic) was published in 1964. The book’s Epilogue was published in 1986, presumably because O’Brien’s publishers decided to publish all three together and she wanted to wrap things up. Which she does, to devastating effect.

Oops. NOT A SPOILER.

O’Brien’s “heroines” – and they are only heroines in that technical sense in which “hero” or “heroine” has for some time come to denote “main character” – are Caithleen (or Kate) and Baba (which is presumably short for something, although I don’t think we ever find out, but apparently it’s not Barbara) are teens in rural County Clare, in the west of Ireland, in what I suspect is the mid- to late ’50s. I seem to remember suggestions in the third novel, set in London, that the girls – women, now, in their mid 20s – are living through the early years of the ’60s, which suggests that they are younger than their creator, who was born in 1932. Still, there’s plenty about these books that suggests they are autobiographical – including the fact that O’Brien published a memoir a couple of years ago (which obviously I haven’t read) called Country Girl.

Netty described this book as “Irish chick lit”, and she wasn’t being polite. And I have to admit, as I was reading it, the words “chick lit” did occur to me. But they occurred to me in an odd way, because I was reading it -voraciously – and thoroughly enjoying it, and at the same time asking myself what it was that I was enjoying. Because was it not, after all, chick lit?

Maybe, maybe not. Is Mansfield Park (the only Jane Austen I’ve read) chick lit? Is Wuthering Heights (the only Bronte novel I’ve read) chick lit? Is The Robber Bride (one of many, many Margaret Atwood novels I’ve read) chick lit?

O’Brien is a beautiful writer. She writes beautifully about the experience of women in a particular time, immediately preceding and amid a transformation that, tragically, would not achieve what was hoped. Some of this you read into the text, necessarily, because it was written literally then and O’Brien obviously could not have known where “women’s lib” was heading. Nevertheless, that element is present, and perhaps O’Brien imbued her characters’ experiences with touches of what was happening around her as she wrote. There is also a certain emotional distance – despite the fact that every word of this collection is written in the first person – that allows for a certain contempt, for withering wit, for commentary on her characters’ personalities and the choices they make.

It’s also beautiful in its depiction of country Ireland, and later Dublin, and later still London in the late ’50s/early ’60s. I lived in London twenty years ago, and twenty years before that I lived in Ireland – although the north, not the republic. While I lived in London as an adult I spent a couple of weeks travelling around the republic. This involved a few days in Dublin, which I liked but didn’t fall in love with, a few days on the Dingle Peninsula, which was awesome, quite a few days in Galway, which involved a few days on the Aran islands and also a visit to WB Yeats’s ruined Coole estate; and also a few days at the Cliffs of Moher, which are in County Clare. OK, so basically I’ve just realised this entire paragraph is me bragging about stuff I barely remember – although I do have the photos. County Clare in the ’50s is not somewhere I’d have wanted to live, but I loved reading about it.

Not everybody will  enjoy The Country Girls – Netty can attest to that. But I did, and that’s not just because I recommended it. It’s wonderful, and heartbreaking, and funny, and moving, and thought-provoking. I have downloaded Edna O’Brien’s collected stories, and hopefully I’ll get to some of them over my three-week break.

Yes. I have a three-week break. Read it and weep, bitches.

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