In which Netty’s resolve to never set foot in Ireland is further cemented by the god-awful Country Girls …

December 31, 2014

countrygirls-imageQuestion: What’s worse than yer regular bog-standard chick lit?

Answer: Misery-gut-laden, woe-is-fucking-me Irish chick lit.

Andy and I have been doing this blog for eight years now. It’s called a Reading Challenge for a reason – we read big, weighty, difficult literary tomes. And we make no apologies for it. Joyce (more on him later), Proust, Cervantes (note: we haven’t actually read any of these for various reasons, but you get the picture. These are the kind of authors to which we aspire).

Enter Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy, which gets a tick in one of these categories, at any rate (in case you’re wondering which one, let me enlighten you: it’s big. All 532 pages of its very small type). So, yeah, something seems to have gone wrong somewhere in our current programming schedule, but we promise to resume normal transmission as soon as possible. Ahem.

“Irish chick lit” is the phrase I used to sum up Country Girls when Andy and I convened for lunch and a drink (me) or six (Andy) a couple of weeks ago. I thought I was being kind. As sometimes happens, Andy has a completely different take on this trilogy, and if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read his blog entry. However, you may well come away thinking we read two very different books.

I actually had a bit of trouble tracking down this trilogy locally. As Andy noted, O’Brien – who’s now in her mid-eighties – also published a memoir entitled Country Girl a couple of years ago. My bookstore, for some reason, could only find the first volume of the novel version. But Andy was so insistent we read all three that we ended up ordering it from one of those online thingedy places. More’s the shame – I could have easily called it quits after the first volume. But no. This is not really surprising – Andy has a bit of the sadist lurking in him sometimes …

I should note that O’Brien is very well regarded in literary circles, and particularly so for this work. She is a much-lauded and awarded author of a couple of dozen novels and short story collections, a couple of poetry collections, and a handful of non-fiction works and plays. Well, yeah – but so is Stephen King, and I won’t be rushing out to read any of his stuff any time soon either.

Andy is among her admirers, and possibly his interest was further piqued by the fact he once lived in Ireland and knows it well. I, on the other hand, have never been there and have no interest in doing so – look, I come from Tasmania, so I’m more than familiar with cold, damp places with lots of potatoes and not many people.

Country Girls was considered somewhat scandalous on its publication in 1960 (its sequels The Lonely Girl – also known as The Girl With Green Eyes – and Girls In Their Married Bliss followed in 1962 and 1964, respectively; the trilogy was published in 1987 with a 21-page epilogue bringing the now-grown-up girls’ futures up to date). It was banned – and burned – in O’Brien’s native Ireland for its depictions of young girls rejecting religious doctrines and exploring their burgeoning sexuality. These days, that’s all a bit ho-hum, dime-a-dozen in the annals of bookdom, but I appreciate how outrageous it must have seemed to mid-20th century rural Ireland. So, you know, credit where credit’s due.

Righto, back to the plot. You’ve got two teenage girls – Caithleen, or Cait, or Kate, or whatever the hell she calls herself, and Baba (a diminutive of Bridget, actually), who live in a poor Irish hamlet (Baba’s family are reasonably well off in comparative terms) until they are shipped off to convent. Poor old Caithleen/Cait/Kate lives in fear of her alcoholic father – a relationship she is doomed to repeat for the rest of her life in wildly inappropriate relationships with older, unavailable men – and loses her mother early doors in a tragic boating accident. So, yeah, Caithleen/Cait/Kate has got a bit to be miserable about, but geez, it’s milked to the nth degree. The girls seize upon the first chance they get to escape to the bright lights, big city of Dublin. And that’s basically book one, which is narrated by our pained – and frigging painful – heroine.

It doesn’t get much better in book two, which is basically the story of Caithleen/Cait/Kate’s long-winded, basically dysfunctional relationship with married cad Eugene Gaillard. Spare me. Things take a turn for the (only slightly, mind you) in the more-of-the-same-but-more interesting book three – largely, I suspect, because Baba takes over narration duties for large swathes of it. The story takes on a welcome new perspective told through Baba’s eyes and in her voice, further cementing just what a whiny, crushing bore is Caithleen/Cait/Kate. Ironically, I found that the slog through the trilogy – and by crikey it was a slog, hence why you’re reading this blog a month after I should have written it – was redeemed in the epilogue, also narrated by Baba. But that’s still only a small consolation for wading through the dross of the preceding 508 pages.

O’Brien’s fans – which include Andy – are full of praise for her writing style. It’s OK, but I found the long passages of description tedious beyond belief – and, frankly, largely unnecessary. Seriously, book one could have been reduced to a novella if you’d drastically pared back the realms of descriptions about the houses, the hamlet, the bloody sodding peat bogs. Peeps compare O’Brien to James Joyce – and she’s obviously a big fan, because she penned a 1999 biography on the renowned Irish man of letters. If that’s the case, I’m in a world of trouble as I prepare – finally – to take on Ulysses in the next month.

If you like chick lit, or, you know, rural Ireland in the 1950s, then yeah, knock yourself out. But for me, there’s not enough time to read all the books I actually want to read. So, if you’re still interested – or you’re a bit of a masochist – go check out your local charity bin. That’s where my copy of Country Girls is heading, stat.


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