The arresting photo on the jacket of Edna O’Brien’s lyrical memoir, Country Girl, captures the writer sometime in her heyday, cigarette poised between her lips, looking confident and inquisitive, but also a little bewildered. These same qualities have always defined O’Brien’s writing itself—she is a magical storyteller and prose stylist who writes emphatically from both the head and the heart, yet has never been afraid to express the tentativeness of life.
Country Girl, its title a nod to her first and still widely read debut novel The Country Girls, is a book that O’Brien’s fans will warmly embrace. The assumption has always been that swaths of autobiographical detail have fueled much of this Irish-born writer’s fiction, and this impressionistic chronicle of her life lays to rest any doubts. Here are the true details of a childhood in the west of Ireland as young Edna pushes against the provincial and parochial constraints of village and parish. Later, she quickly acknowledges the mistake of an early marriage, but remains too long in this claustrophobic union with an impatient martinet who discourages her talents, then seethes when her literary star begins to eclipse his own. On the upside, that marriage—O’Brien’s only trip to the altar—produced her two beloved sons, Carlo and Sasha.
After her first novel appeared in 1960, bringing quick fame and some measure of wealth, O’Brien was ensconced in Chelsea and duly immersed in London’s Swinging Sixties, partying with Paul McCartney and Richard Burton (a fellow Celt and “bard brother”), and forging enduring friendships with Harold Pinter and other seminal writers and artists of the age. She became a patient of renegade psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who gave her LSD. During extended teaching trips to New York, she became a close friend of Jackie Onassis. She was wined and dined at the White House.
It was a remarkable transformation from shy country girl from County Clare to world-renowned literary celebrity, and what strikes one most in O’Brien’s story is that her life has been a study in sharp contrasts. The little girl whose once grand but impecunious family often had the bailiff at the door could never imagine those future dinners at Jackie O’s Fifth Avenue digs. Having lived in London nearly all her adult life, her connection to Ireland remains indelible, even though her native land all but banned her early books. Reading between the lines of this candid, if intentionally elliptical memoir, it becomes patently clear that much of O’Brien’s literary output has been an effort to integrate her motherland (and, indeed, her complicated relationship with her strong-willed mother) into the larger canvas that has become her life. Now in her 80s, Edna O’Brien reveals herself in this memoir as a woman of youthful passions and yearnings, still a writer of exquisite prose that probes the clandestine corners of what she herself has called a fanatic heart.