The Country Girls, by Edna O'Brien
Book Club May 2019 : The Country Girls, by Edna O’Brien
First published in 1960 to massive disapproval in Ireland - and recently hailed as the darling of Dublin literature by being selected as their ‘one city one book’ choice – this book provokes a great deal of strong feelings both for and against even almost 60 years later. A remarkable feat for what is essentially a simple coming of age story of two young girls.
Do we like or loathe Baba? Is Caithleen a drip or just bullied into compliance? Is the Ireland of yesteryear sympathetically painted, or a loathsome nest of horrors? I’m not sure that we agreed on the answers to any of these questions!
Even on the writing style, some loved it as an easy and immersive read, others found it dated, stilted and unengaging. Having now read on through the rest of the trilogy, I can agree that the writing style and sophistication improves markedly in the later books.
One of the most important themes, both for then and now, is the man/woman relationship. Ireland back in the day seemed populated by drunken, middle aged, randy old men who Cate either made huge efforts to avoid, or fell unrequitedly and innocently in love with. (Where were all the young men?!) In today’s world we read this as sinister grooming, unwanted attention and really rather unpleasant. 1960’s Ireland objected to it, but for different reasons - that in fact it gave a voice to the young sexual awakening of an (unmarried) girl, and that was seen as unacceptable in literature at the time. This, I think, is what makes it dated and uncomfortable reading for some in 2019.
The various women characters are however, brilliantly nuanced and written with real understanding, even the minor characters such as Baba’s mother. Love or hate Baba, she is a fully realised, feisty and larger than life character. She sits as a polar opposite to Caithleen and their interactions from childhood to young adulthood are full of accurate observation.
As discussed last week, Edna O’Brien continued to write a huge canon of work, often taking difficult and controversial incidents as inspiration for her fiction. Whether or not The Country Girls can be taken as representative of her later work is questionable. She clearly still has a difficult relationship with her mother country – she has lived her entire adult life in London – but Ireland seems now happy to claim her as one of their own.