The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

OBrienHow funny to read a book that was burned and banned upon publication and think “what a nice book.” That’s exactly what happened when I finished Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls. When this book was published in 1960, it caused an uproar in Ireland, which is part of the reason why I picked it for Reading Ireland month (hosted by Cathy and Niall). I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Now that I am done, I’m getting a kick out of imagining how many people got high blood pressure back then because of this book, while I am contemplating words like “sweet” and “charming” to describe it.

The Country Girls describes the coming of age of naïve Caithleen, the narrator, and her bossy friend Baba. Caithleen’s father is an alcoholic, leaving Caithleen and her mother alone on a run-down farm and in constant fear of his unstable behavior. When Caithleen’s mother dies in an accident, Baba’s family takes her in. Shortly thereafter, the two girls are sent away to a convent school—a rather unpleasant place, though Caithleen excels in her studies. Both girls yearn for a different life. While Baba looks for the adventures a single girl might have, Caithleen yearns for romance and true love. They manage to get themselves expelled from the convent and move to Dublin. They are having a good time until Baba has to get treatment for tuberculosis and Caithleen is betrayed by her love interest, ironically called Mr. Gentleman.

Looking at this summary, it seems like nothing much is happening in this book. And it’s true; there is not much action. I still became engrossed in the story. Caithleen is a sweet person and a good narrator. Even though she doesn’t always know what is going on, she lets on just enough for the reader to understand. She is lonely and yearns for someone to love her. While she wants to get away from the unhappy memories of her childhood, I wondered whether she really did want to move to Dublin or whether she got bullied into it by Baba. She navigates every-day life in the city well enough, but there were a few times when I feared for her because she is too trusting. This book reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, only with fewer drawn-out descriptions and characters. I enjoyed reading it.

My only complaint is that the ending was rather sudden. If I had intended to read this as a stand-alone book, I would have been disappointed. However, it is part of a trilogy, which I am sure I will read in its entirety at some point. I took a peak at the second book, The Lonely Girl, and aside from jumping forward by 2 years, it seems to pretty much pick up where The Country Girls leaves off.

As for the part that caused the Irish to have conniption fits in 1960? Even reading it 55 years after publication, I expected something slightly juicier than a few innocent kisses, fluttery feelings in the stomach, and half a page of inhibited nudity with hardly any touching. As it was, this only made me smile, in a very nice way (just like the cover of the original edition).

CountryGirls

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24 comments

  1. […] As you can see, I finished 8 of them, which I consider a success. Four of the books were for the wonderful Reading Ireland event  that had me looking up plenty of new-to-me books and authors. My favorite books were The Hand That First Held Mine and The Country Girls. […]

  2. Pretty much every major 20th century Irish author had a book banned. It was like a right of passage sealing your credentials as an author. You read any of the books now and you have to wonder why they were banned. It was often for the most innocent of reasons.

    • When you consider some of the books that are being published these days, it’s probably no surprise that some of the things that caused a furor 50 years ago seem very innocent now.

  3. Long ago I read the first volume of this trilogy and really enjoyed it, but I never was able to find the other two. I guess, in these days of the internet, I should just search for it, but now I can barely remember the first book. Time to get all of them and start over, I guess.

    • How funny… I was looking for only the first book and could only find a used copy of the entire trilogy. It worked out for me, because I do want to read the other two stories now. Like you, I really enjoyed the first book, and it will be a quick read, if you decide to reread it.

  4. This DOES sound charming. 🙂 Funny how our ideas of propriety change over time, and how this still would be wildly inappropriate in some cultures…

    • I haven’t read any of O’Brien’s other works, but I think Saints and Sinners was published not too long ago. If the stories are anything like The Country Girls, then I doubt that there was any uproar. But you’ve given me something to research now… Thanks for your comment.

  5. Ah, the good old days! The worst thing was of course that every time a book was banned everyone wanted to read it! It was a sure-fire way of making a book a hit. However, this one does sound considerably less bann-able than Lady Chatterley…

  6. I read this years ago and loved it. As a result I went through all the Kate and Baba novels. I once heard Edna O’Brien read an excerpt on I think South Bank Show – the mix of the prose and her Irish accent was magical!

      • I’ve not read it but did watch programme about her and read articles in press at the time – she’s a character and a half – sounds like she stepped straight out of one of her own novels – which is just great! She seems to me to be the literary equivalent of Marianne Faithful!

  7. Ha. It’s funny to think about what caused the banning of books in the past. This one sounds so innocent – surely they had bigger things to worry about! After reading your review, the book sounds almost Maeve Binchy-ish. But, maybe it’s just the settings that make me think that.

    • You’re right; you’d think they have better things to do. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Maeve Binchy book, so I can’t compare, but this was a quiet book with little drama, for me as the reader at least. (There was quite a bit of drama when the girls got expelled from the convent.)

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