The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

The first book in a trilogy, published in 1960 and banned by the Irish censorship board on publication, it was followed by The Girl with Green Eyes also entitled The Lonely Girl in 1962 and by Girls in their Married Bliss in 1964. According to Wikipedia, the O’Brien family priest burned copies of the novel and the parents were  shamed by their daughter’s words.

The burning by the parish priest is referred to on the blurb of O’Brien’s recent memoir Country Girl Memoirentitled, very appropriately,  Country Girl. Also from the jacket of that same publication: “Married with two sons, O’Brien was undeterred (by the scandal surrounding publication of The Country Girls) and has since created a body of work that stands among the best writing of the twentieth century. Country Girl brings us face-to-face with a life of high drama and contemplation. It is a rich and heady account of the events, people, emotion and landscape that imprint on and enhance one lifetime.” The same might be said of the first book in the trilogy.

The Country Girls is the story of two Irish girls living in a small village in early 1960s Ireland. The book was dedicated, incidentally, “To my mother”. The narrator is Caithleen Brady and her friend is Baba Brennan. It may be hard to imagine a “best friend” such as Baba but she remains Caithleen’s friend throughout the story. When the two girls meet in the cloak room on the last day of school, Baba wore “a white cardigan like a cloak over her shoulders so that the sleeves dangled down idly. She was full of herself.
“‘And what in the hell do you want a bloody coat and hat and scarf for? It’s the month of May. You’re like a bloody Eskimo.’
‘What’s a bloody Eskimo?’
‘Mind your own business.’ She didn’t know.
She stood in front of me, peering at my skin as if it were full of blackheads or spots. I could smell her soap. It was a wonderful smell, half perfume, half disinfectant.
‘What soap is that you’re using?’ I asked.
‘Mind your own bloody business and use carbolic. Anyhow, you’re a country mope and you don’t even wash in the bathroom, for God’s sake. Bowls of water in the scullery and a face-cloth your mother made out of an old rag. What do you use the bathroom for anyhow?’ she said.
‘We have a guest room,’ I said, getting hysterical with temper.
‘Jesus, ye have, and there’s oats in it. The place is like a bloody barn with chickens in a box in the window; did you fix the lavatory chain yet?’
It was surprising that she could talk so fast and yet she wasn’t able to write a composition, but bullied me to do it for her.”

There is much anxiety in the first chapter of The Country Girls and it centers around Caithleen’s father. Both her mother and herself are afflicted by this anxiety. When the hired man, Hickey, suggests Caithleen’s mother go to see a play at the town hall, she spoke to him sacastically saying “I ought.” “She was thinking. Thinking where was he? Would he come home in an ambulance, or a hackney car, hired in Belfast three days ago and not paid for? Would he stumble up the stone steps at the back door waving a bottle of whiskey? Would he shout, struggle, kill her, or apologize? Would he fall in the hall door with some drunken fool…He had gone, three days before, with sixty pounds in his pocket to pay the rates.”

And for Caithleen, it was similar: “In fear and trembling I set off for school. I might meet him on the way or else he might come home and kill Mama.
‘Will you come to meet me?’ I asked her.
‘Yes, darling; soon as I tidy up after Hickey’s dinner, I”ll go over the road to meet you.’
‘For sure?’ I said. There were tears in my eyes. I was always afraid that my mother would die while I was at school.”

In Chapter 2 we are introduced to Mr. Gentleman. In Caithleen’s words, he “was a The Country Girlsbeautiful man who lived in the white house on the hill.It had turret windows and an oak door that was like a church door and Mr. Gentleman played chess in the evenings. He worked as a solicitor in Dublin, but he came home at the week-ends and in summer-time he sailed a boat on the Shannon. Mr. Gentleman was not his real name, of course, but everyone called him that. He was French, and his real name was Mr de Maurier, but no one could pronounce it properly…J.W. were the initials of his Christian names and they stood for Jacques and something else.”  Caithleen was sent by her Dada to his house one day with a note to ask to borrow money. We also learn more about Baba in Chapter 2: she was “the veterinary surgeon’s daughter” and, to use Caithleen’s words, “the person whom I feared most after my father.” We also meet Jack Holland in Chapter 2 and learn that he was ordered out of their house because he was caught with his hand on Mama’s knee under the card table one night. Caithleen is wary of Jack but gets plenty of good information from him. He warns her in this chapter that ‘There’s trouble brewing” but their chatting is interrupted by Baba on her bicycle who grabs the lilacs that Caithleen has brought for Miss Moriarity and claims them as her own gift for the teacher. At school, Caithleen learns that she has won a scholarship to the convent school. She gets a note from Baba saying she will be going to the same school.

In the next chapter, Jack Holland informs Caithleen that her mother has gone on a little journey. When Caithleen panics and cries, Baba encourages her to cry more: “She knew we’d get something.” Sure enough Jack came back with glasses of cider. Caithleen is afraid that her mother has gone to ask the O’Briens if she and her mother could go and live with them. She asks Hickey if her father came home and whether he hit her mother: “Hasn’t he always hit someone when he’s drunk?  If it’s not her ’tis me; and ’tis the dog if it’s neither of us.’ Arrangements have been made for Caithleen to stay with Baba but before she leaves the house she has an unexpected run in with her father.

Anyway, it’s a compelling coming-of-age story and, set in the 60s or not, it is timeless. How they manage to get themselves expelled from the convent school and then, how they manage in Dublin “as the giddy country girls brazening the big city” will entertain and also make you recall your own adventures from that phase of your life. I am looking forward to the second and third books in the trilogy.