Edna O’Brien had a dream. In it, she is a very young girl on her way to school when she trips and falls on the road, gashing her forehead open. Out spills her brain, which becomes a spinning top that passers-by, young and old, dance and trample upon.
Reality for O’Brien has proved far less cruel, thank God. There has been no stamping into silence the whirling mind of this Irish writer, whose early novels were once denounced in her homeland as too salacious. Over the past five decades, she has spun out tales of fiction, biographies, essays and a collection of poetry, her work garnering numerous honors, including the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award.
You need not to have read any of O’Brien’s books to be drawn into Country Girl, the memoir O’Brien swore she would never write. From page one, she irresistibly pulls us into the wild heart of her life with masterly prose and a sagacity born of observant living. In this luscious account, O’Brien writes of her raw and solitary childhood in rural Ireland, of her impetuous marriage to the writer Ernest Gébler and their divorce, of illicit and constant loves, of her successes and failures as a writer—”the fame and the slaughter”—of exhilarating evenings among the literati of London and New York and times of inward unraveling, and of the reading and writing that sustained her through the years. A survivor’s tale. A reckoning exquisitely rendered, Country Girl is a testament to the holy craft of writing, its power to reveal how life, for all its vicissitudes, is a bountiful gift.
The youngest of Lena and Michael O’Brien’s five children, Edna was born in 1930 and raised at Drewsboro, her father’s decaying estate in western Ireland. Michael O’Brien is a gambling man and alcoholic, and young Edna lives within the folds of her fiercely loving mother. The outdoors provide refuge from a home lacking in money and “fraught with tension.”
As a child, O’Brien thought Drewsboro the “loveliest, leafiest place in the whole world.” It is here in fields of wildflower and burdock, where family ghosts and Mad Mabel roam and Carnero, the farmhand, sings saucy ditties as he takes his weekly wash that 8-year-old O’Brien first pursues her “daft ambition” to be a writer, jotting down essays on the natural world to submit to a local newspaper.
O’Brien’s childhood is imbued with a stifling Catholicism, her people forever petitioning Christ to save them from their own bodies. For all her mother’s prayers, O’Brien inclines to rapturous, hectic loves. At age 23 she elopes with the Irish writer Ernest Gébler, who, unknown to her, has been recently abandoned by his American wife and child. The couple have sons, Carlo and Sasha, and move to London. In “bleak suburbia,” amid the desolation of a marriage to a moody, controlling man, she scrawls The Country Girls in three short weeks, writing while the children are away at school and before bringing her husband his afternoon tea. Set in Ireland, O’Brien’s debut novel, the first in a trilogy, receives high praise from reviewers but condemnation from many of her countrymen for its sexual passages.
As O’Brien’s literary star rises, her already ailing marriage plummets. After one furious evening during which the depressive and jealous Ernest attempts to choke her, she walks out of the house and suffocating marriage, putting behind her the “twin governance of parents and husband.” (O’Brien later said reliving that exodus of 1962 was the most difficult part of writing this memoir.)
The years that follow bring their upheavals and joys, which O’Brien recounts with penetrating precision, capturing the smell of memory and hue of mood as well as landscape.
Ireland, the homeland O’Brien left decades ago, is in the very marrow of this sublime telling. It suffuses her chapters on childhood, Dublin, Donegal and the North. It can be heard in O’Brien’s voice, felt in the melancholy that rims this tale, making the joys appear more luminous. It was the light of Belfast that she first noticed when she journeyed to the city in 1974 to write of the Troubles. “A gray, rainy light, working-class Protestant and Catholic houses, identical, Lilliputian size, the presence of mountain and sea, and heaped clouds that cried out for poetry and not bloodshed.”
Those expecting a kiss-and-tell memoir from O’Brien will be disappointed. She devotes just 10 pages to her two love affairs, and these are remotely described. Far more revealing and specific is her chapter on the LSD trip taken under the supervision of the Scottish psychotherapist R. D. Laing and her hilarities reckoning with dry spells in writing. The woman who wrote a novel in three weeks finds herself facing wordless seasons and pursues myriad methods to conjure away her barrenness.
“There were so many me’s,” writes O’Brien. Imaginative, repressed child, pining lover, committed mother and wise woman with a wicked sense of humor, all vividly appear in these pages. But it is O’Brien the writer, unflinching observer of self and world, pursuing her craft with the same rigor a saint pursues union with God, who makes this memoir a tale of warrior’s perseverance as well as an account of love’s yearnings and losses. Criticized by her friend Norman Mailer for producing prose that is “too interior,” O’Brien remains committed to the interior view, giving us the heart of a scene in exquisite detail.
Devour this book in a day, if you choose, but then reread and savor. Its landscapes alone evoked an awe in me akin to what I felt in the cathedrals of Europe. The sheer beauty of O’Brien’s descriptions make you want to drop down on your knees and stammer “thank you” for all that is gorgeous on this planet. “The world is so beautiful,” she writes. Indeed, when O’Brien has pen in hand, that truth is made more obvious.