How 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).