O’Brien shot to fame in 1960 with her novel The Country Girls, whose unashamed depiction of the lives and desires of young women caused it to be banned on publication in her native Ireland. Since then she has written over 20 works of fiction, biographies of James Joyce and Lord Byron, and plays including Virginia, based on the life of Virginia Woolf.
Country Girl is roughly chronological, charting the trajectory of O’Brien’s life from her childhood in rural County Clare to her time as a young woman in London, living the glamorous life of celebrity parties that which she had dreamed about a girl.
As an older woman the reader finds her drifting somewhat, longing for something that she never quite finds.
O’Brien’s childhood in Ireland holds all the aspects that one might expect from an Irish misery memoir: poverty, a drunken and abusive father and backwardness. Catholicism is ever present, especially among the women, and judgement for sin is rife. Born just ten years after partition, the wounds of history and war are still raw.
Edna marries an older man, has two sons, moves to London and starts to write. Her husband is jealous of her talent and on reading her first novel says, “You can write and I will never forgive you”.
O’Brien lives the 1960s to the full, her house always full of actors, writers and musicians. From Paul McCartney to Marlon Brando to Joan and Laurence Olivier, the name-dropping can get a bit much.
She also gives the impression that this life just happened to her, but she must have chosen it and worked hard to achieve it. She casts herself as a rather sentimental – even submissive – woman, but she clearly has the courage and ambition to challenge society and to achieve success.
As a child O’Brien writes stories, but it is never enough, as she describes herself wanting to get inside the stories “in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of my mother”.
This longing to return, to be enclosed, to be comforted, is something that comes across strongly in O’Brien’s later life. She struggles to find a home where she can belong, never finds satisfying love, and consults numerous astrologers, mediums and gurus in the course of her quest.
Irishness is a powerful element in this quest for home. Emigration and exile have long been part of Irish culture and although O’Brien visits and at one point builds a house in Ireland, she does not stay for good.
Her descriptions of characters and places is poetic and her language melancholy and wistful. This all changes in the chapters on Northern Ireland. Here the language is brutal and harsh, the characters more frightening but also more vivid and alive. She must have been brave to write her novel about the North, but claims she could not move on to other work until she had.
Her own voice and actions are often missing. We see the consequences of her actions and the impact of her words but they are not themselves reported. This gives the book an atmosphere of languor, and O’Brien an air of passivity and sentimentality which is probably unjustified.
O’Brien swore she would never write a memoir, but she has – and although this pervading sense of inevitability rather than active choice is sometimes frustrating, I am glad that she did.
Country Girl is available now in hardback from Faber and Faber and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £20. An e-book version is also available, priced at £9.72, as well as an audio version, priced at £21.41.