The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
Edna O’Brien is widely regarded as the doyen of Irish female novelists. She is a writer of some standing in literary circles upon the island. I must confess that this is the first of her novels I have read (it is also her first novel). I don’t intend for it to be the last.
That said, I have some mixed feelings about The Country Girls. It is without doubt a beautifully written story. The depictions of the Irish countryside and country-life are vivid and memorable. The characters within are clearly defined and accessible.
However, O’Brien’s representation of the Irish male is poor and inaccurate. To provide some context for my observations, allow me to explain that this novel was written in the 1950’s and was set in the same era. During that period, Ireland was a relatively undeveloped political entity. The southern Irish state was struggling to find its feet, and nowhere was this more evident than in rural locations. The Country Girls perfectly recreates the unfortunate circumstances that were most prevalent then.
Additionally, Ireland then and, to a lesser extent, now was a male dominated society. Many women and their children were treated as chattel. They were afforded no respect by the state, the Catholic Church, and the men in their communities. Abuse, be it physical, sexual, emotional and psychological, of both women and children was widespread. Arranged marriages between young girls and old landowning farmers was not unheard of. Some would say that such attitudes were of their time, but there was, and is, no excuse for such treatment of people. Walt Disney and John Ford sought not to portray this unsavoury side of Irish society in their movies of the time. I suppose that specious romanticism is better for putting bums on cinema seats.
Edna O’Brien has captured this horror, to a degree, in her narrative and packaged it in such a delicate way as to be somewhat more acceptable to 1960’s society, when the book was first published, although, in a sign of how shocking the book was considered at the time, it was banned by the Irish Censorship Board. In O’Brien’s parish, the local priest burned copies of The Country Girls and publicly shamed O’Brien’s family. Perhaps it is because of this disgraceful reaction by a morally corrupt Establishment, that the book today has garnered much praise and attention. Though it is still a powerful book in its own right.
The problem, as I see it in the tale, is the depiction of Irish men as all being horrible, sex-obsessed, heavy-drinking degenerates. It is a grossly simplistic and unfair characterization of the gender. OK, as I’m an Irish male (although much too young to feature in this tale) I may be slightly biased. I do accept that many Irish men need a swift kick in the bollocks for the manner in which they treated women and children. I would be first in any line to deliver such retribution and would swing my freshly polished boot with vigor and aplomb, smiling all the while.
However, in The Country Girls, there was but one male protagonist out of quite a few who emerged as being in any way decent. The rest were shown to be so vile that they would be rejected from both the Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle shows, for lacking sensitivity. Irish men were not all terrible people. O’Brien was perhaps accentuating the baser behaviour of men to better make a valid point. Yet it is a misleading and offensive portrayal.
The story centres around Caithleen (Kate) Brady and her coming of age. We follow young Caithleen as she struggles to cope with trials she must face, beyond what most of her contemporaries have to endure. As a 14 year old, she must dodge the advances and wedding proposals from sleazy old men in her village, as she continues to blossom into a beautiful young woman. Her friend and main antagonist, Baba, helps to provide some comic relief throughout, even though O’Brien’s hand is light in dealing with some very tough issues. The author skilfully manages to avoid any mawkish indulgence, as neither Caithleen nor the writer tend to wallow in the sadness that seems to attach itself to the young girl. As the troubled Miss Brady keeps battling innocently through life, so too does O’Brien ensure that the story flows swiftly on.
The prose is choppy, in that there are few long sentences. I expect that students of the discipline are screaming the name for this particular style at their screen. I can’t hear you, so stop shouting. Your neighbours will think you’re killing someone. The style works well though, for this narrative. As much as I enjoyed O’Brien’s clearly gifted approach, I must admit that the entire story left me with a strange feeling of sadness for Caithleen, and carrying a healthy dose of admiration for her also.
There are not a huge amount of plot twists here. This is not a thriller. It has been some considerable time since I read J.D. Salinger’s ‘the Catcher in the Rye‘, but I get a sense that The Country Girls is a slightly similar tale, with Caithleen replacing Holden Caulfield. Interestingly, Salinger’s novel was also the victim of censorship.
One strange aspect of this novel is the ending. I won’t spoil it for any potential reader, but will reveal that I turned the book upside down and gave it a shake to see if perhaps the ending was wedged in somewhere and might dislodge itself to end my confusion. Joking aside, this might be one of the poorest and most abrupt endings to a good novel that I have ever encountered.
And it is a good novel. As stated, it’s well written, emotive, rebellious and incredibly poignant. The story is continued as a trilogy, with Girl with Green Eyes and then Girls in Their Married Bliss following on (maybe I will find the ending of The Country Girls there). The County Girls gives a valuable, if skewed, insight into an Ireland that is thankfully all but gone. There is no doubting Edna O’Brien’s courage in tackling the immorality extant during her formative years. When placed in that context, I have to agree that O’Brien was to the fore in combating social rot, by writing about it when few others did. She was, and is (as at this time she is still alive and kicking (hopefully arrogant and fetid testicles)) worthy of respect. If I was wearing a hat, I would take it off to her.
Sult scale rating: 6.5 out of 10. Recommended for students of good literature.