Edna O’Brien stated that she would never write her autobiography
and yet also said that “Any book that is any good must be autobiographical.” And yet her she is in the latter stages of her life breaking her own resistance and giving us another worthwhile read. She said somewhere “We all leave one another. We die, we change - it's mostly change - we outgrow our best friends; but even if I do leave you, I will have passed on to you something of myself; you will be a different person because of knowing me; it's inescapable.” And that’s the feeling I came away with after reading her “Country Girl.”
I read her first novel “The Country Girls” in 1960 which she wrote in three weeks. Instantly acclaimed in UK and US literary circles, as were her next three books, it was banned in her native Ireland—O’Brien subsequently achieved a level of celebrity that far exceeded the literary world. I was captivated by her style and honesty of expression. Her biography has some of that feel but also the tiredness of a writer who has seen and done it all.
I found the earlier part of the book to be more appealing and in many ways more self-disclosing. She writes affectionately of her childhood and growing up in a decaying, once grand house called Drewsboro in County Clare, where what she shared with her severely pious mother was mainly a fear of her frequently inebriated father. She writes vividly of being attacked by an ill-tempered dog, of playing with dolls in her dining room, and of discovering and nurturing her interest in literature and writing.
Her entry into the world of publishing, books and writers came with marrying the novelist Ernest Gebler in her early 20s. in Dublin, who realizing O’Brien’s talent was paralyzed with jealousy and bitterness. She gave him two sons, but the publication and international success of her first novel spelled the end of her marriage.
The second part of the book read for me more like sections from a journal and although interesting, lacked the simplicity and freshness of the early years. In the 1970s, she was known for dinner parties whose guests included Princess Margaret hosted in her six-bedroom house on London’s Carlyle Square. Paul McCartney sees her home. Marlon Brando walks her home. (“We sat in the kitchen, where he drank milk, and I drank wine.”) She asks Jack Nicholson to see her home. Richard Burton rings the doorbell. Jackie Onassis invites her in. Prepped by Sean Connery, she drops acid with R. D. Laing who was her psychiatrist. She attracted numerous famous studs, and makes some bedroom confessions, revealing a one-night stand with Robert Mitchum.
Country Girl is filled with many telling moments as O’Brien shares with us eight decades filled with honesty and vulnerability: unable to swim, unable to drive; the regrettable choices made, unreciprocated love and, always, a passion for words and literature. Her prose and feeling for the right word throughout the book is exquisite and makes it an excellent read.