A life well lived, well told
While Country Girl is a terrific, gripping read, I did find myself becoming irritated from time to time at the level of name-dropping going on, sometimes, it seemed, just for its own sake, as if O’Brien felt the need to legitimise herself by showing how well connected she was. That said, any time I would get annoyed at these indulgences, I would almost immediately be seduced again by her exquisite use of language and wonderful capacity to write a beautiful paragraph, as where (to pick one almost at random) O’Brien admits to and probes the writer’s block she suffered, her flow perhaps interrupted by two particular clandestine love affairs that consumed all her energy but ended badly: “Sometimes I went to universities or colleges to speak to students, where I was supposed to be imparting nuggets of wisdom. I brought Kafka to read to them and told them how Kafka had said a book must be the axe to the frozen seas inside us. In Hull the wind from the North Sea, with a wet spray to it, plashed against the picture windows. Afterwards, in the almost empty dining room, the talk came round to the blank page and the places writers flee to in the belief that it will help them to write.”
For all her colourful persona, Edna O’Brien is a serious writer. This is evident from her treatment of Northern Ireland – “to write about the North was to enter troubled waters” – and the progression in her career to writing what are styled “state of the nation” novels.
It is easily forgotten that at the time O’Brien started out writing, very few women had established themselves as career novelists. O’Brien had to look within, to her own experience and feeling, creating a distinct style. With radical perception she wrote of her time, capturing the essence of a generation. Ireland’s initial condemnation of and sometimes ambivalence towards her have softened with the years.
Country Girl’s prologue tells of the moment when, having baked brown bread with its “old smell, the begetter of many a memory”, O’Brien sat down to begin the memoir that she swore she would never write. Perhaps now, on its publication, is the time for a proper reassessment of Edna O’Brien as one of the great creative writers of her generation.
Mary Robinson, formerly president of Ireland and United Nations commissioner for human rights, chairs the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice