What a life Edna O’Brien is having. Born in 1930s Ireland, O’Brien’s life and literary success has taken her all over the world and yet, as this honest memoir reveals, her heart is still very much in Ireland, although as is made so painfully clear Ireland has on numerous occasions not been quite so keen on her.
Let me say straight away that I loved this book. It has just as strong a narrative pull as any novel; a fabulous story of a long, eventful life punctuated with immense highs and devastating lows. O’Brien has a sharp wit which she turns on herself just as easily and quickly as on anyone else, but what impressed most about her, is her strength, guts and sheer chutzpah; it’s no wonder that her social life has consisted of a whirl of Hollywood greats, fabulous musicians and the glittering literati. The names of those she associated with are described vividly and with great candour: from the writer Ernest Gebler who she married and who later despised her for having a talent so much larger than his own, their relationship ending in a bitter divorce and custody battle over the children, to Jackie Onassis who became her friend, Harold Wilson and Ingrid Bergman who partied at her house, Paul McCartney, Gore Vidal and later on Jude Law who she was relieved to meet when old so that the possibility ‘getting on the love trampoline’ had long since passed. One character, a politician described only as Lochinvar is left anonymous, a man who she seemed to love so passionately she was unable to write. For this reader, however, it is the towering figure of her mother that dominates the book. The young O’Brien found that ‘the words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories… but it was not enough because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of my mother.’ Their relationship, often tempestuous and unresolved, seems the most important force in her life.
Unlike other writers, for whom character is the driving force behind their fiction, for O’Brien ‘Places are at the heart… I inclined towards softer, leafier places, ditches choked with wild flowers, weeds and convolvulus, small rivers where the brown and speckled trout ran.’ Place is a major theme in this memoir, from her early days in Drewsboro, County Clare, the house where she was born, to her madcap escape to the Isle of Man with the man who was to become her husband, her father and an abbot in hot pursuit, then to London, New York and Majorca among others, then finally back to Ireland’s less than welcoming arms.
Religion, understandably, plays a major role in O’Brien’s life from her convent schooling where she had her first crush on one of the nuns to the ‘holy water font’ next to the mirror in her room she shared in Dublin with her friend Anna and her sister, but religion, particularly Catholicism, seems a harsh friend to O’Brien at times, one that finds her wanting.
For anyone interested in the process of learning to write and writing itself, this memoir will prove illuminating. O’Brien recounts how, as a young girl, she carried everywhere a small volume: Introducing James Joyce by T.S. Eliot and copied out Joyce’s sentences ‘luminous and labyrinthine as they were. It was when I copied them that I began to realise how great they were, the short, flawless snatches of dialogue, lush descriptions of corpses and steers and pigs and kine, of sea and sea stones, and then the extraordinary ascensions, in which worlds within worlds unfolded.’
Country Girl is not only the history of a literary great, but it is Ireland’s history too: the violence, the Troubles, the religious catastrophe surrounding paedophilia in the Church, the beauty and the landscape, its impact on the literary world and its treatment of a woman driven to write despite the often searing criticism. As we read we come to know not only O’Brien’s sense of fun, her melancholy, her fierce love for her two boys and for the written word, but for the country that produced her.
Any Cop?: This is a beautifully poetic memoir, at times as transient and ephemeral as memory itself. O’Brien acknowledges that she ‘was reluctant to write a memoir’. Thank goodness she did. Wonderful.