Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Irish writer Edna O'Brien recounts a difficult life lived

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"YOU can't go home again," said Thomas Wolfe. However, the Irish writer Edna O'Brien does go home again and again. In this occasionally rambling memoir, she tells us that "the dramatis personae of my childhood provided the richest experience of all."

She has written more than 20 books of short stories and novels, as well as plays and biographies. Her most recent publication, the story collection Saints and Sinners, came out in 2011

In Country Girl, in typically lyrical prose, she candidly recounts the dreams, fears, loves, sorrows and joys that accompanied her journey from repressed rural Ireland to the artistic heights of London and New York.

Fans of O'Brien will enjoy the frisson of recognition that comes when her recollections mesh with the characters and events of her fiction.

She was born in 1930 into a house full of prayer books and religious treasures, with a father who gambled and drank away the family fortune and a mother embittered by loneliness and shame.

Later, while working in a pharmacy in Dublin, she began to live with Ernest Gebler, a writer almost twice her age, married but awaiting a divorce. Her father's response was to beat up Gebler and try to take her home by force while her mother bemoaned her "cruelty."

The eventual marriage to Gebler was a nightmare. He regarded her as his property, spied on her and became violently jealous of her increasing success as a writer. A divorce was inevitable, as was the grim custody battle over their two sons.

Her early novels, The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss, published in the 1960s, were banned in Ireland. To the patriarchal Irish establishment, the notion that growing girls might have sexual desires was nothing short of "filth."

The Lonely Girl was made into the popular film The Girl With the Green Eyes.

Finally, famous, free from her marriage and financially secure, O'Brien threw herself into the glittering celebrity life of London and New York.

Robert Mitchum seduced her (at least for one night), Marlon Brando did not, Paul McCartney wrote a song for her, Philip Roth gave her literary advice and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis confided in her.

Less happily, she had a doomed affair with a prominent, married politician and the psychiatrist R.D. Laing introduced her to LSD as therapy. While she describes a bad trip in harrowing detail, she is unfashionably discreet about the politician, never even naming him.

Later, she was vilified for her apparent sympathy for nationalist terrorists during the Northern Ireland "Troubles." Here, her justification seems to amount to the argument that if both sides are barbaric, at least some credit is due to personal courage.

Perhaps as befits a novelist, she comes across as an observer, a person to whom things happen. Others initiate her relationships. Her life seems overshadowed by fears. She is fearful of her father, of horses, of driving, of thunderstorms, of swimming.

Beneath the glamorous surface lies a deep loneliness that drives her almost to suicide.

Her last chapter is called "Banquet," and, for the most part, this book flows elegantly along like an effervescent party fuelled by sparkling champagne, exciting personalities and great conversation. Unfortunately, towards the end, the book, like some parties, goes on a little too long.

The champagne goes flat, the famous names blur together, the yarns grow tedious and the storyteller loses her audience.

Nevertheless, this 83-year-old woman, who was once mocked as a "bargain basement Molly Bloom," has been recently described by the Irish poet Thomas McCarthy as "the Solzhenitsyn of Irish life -- the one who kept speaking when everyone else stopped talking about being an Irish woman."

She has earned the right to a little self-indulgence.

 

Once upon a time, retired Winnipeg union rep John K. Collins lived in the Irish republic and carried banned books across the border in Belfast.

Country Girl

A Memoir

By Edna O'Brien

Little, Brown, 336 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 J7

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