Portrait of the artist as a young woman

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Country Girl: A Memoir by Edna O’Brien (Little, Brown & Company)

-   Reviewed by Dwight Garner for The New York Times

Edna O’Brien’s fourth novel, August Is a Wicked Month (1965), displayed one of the best author photographs of the 20th century. It’s reprinted on the cover of Country Girl, Ms O’Brien’s new memoir.

It depicts the young author, cigarette clasped between her middle fingers, glancing to her left at some unseen provocation. The photograph is suggestive of both innocence and experience. It seems to promise: This girl is trouble.

Ms O’Brien was trouble. Her early novels were frequently banned, and burned, in her native Ireland when they appeared in the early 1960s. They were about young women who wished to flee their stultifying families and small towns, and they were frank about sexual longing.

They were also beautifully written. ‘I was,’ Ms. O’Brien writes, ‘considered something of a Jezebel because of my books’” She came to relish the dismissals from the blockheaded critics who said, as she puts it, that her ‘talent resided in my knickers.’ Brilliance is the best revenge.

This memoir is the book one has long wanted from Ms O’Brien. She has famously had an adventurous life. In interviews and newspaper profiles she has seemed to be on the prowl for experience in a way that, typically, only our roguish male writers are allowed to be.

Country Girl makes it plain that Ms O’Brien was near the red-hot centre of the Swinging ’60s in London. She dropped acid with her psychiatrist, R D. Laing. Among those who came to her parties were Marianne Faithfull, Sean Connery, Princess Margaret and Jane Fonda.

Richard Burton and Marlon Brando tried to get Ms O’Brien into bed. Robert Mitchum succeeded in doing so, wooing her with this pickup line: ‘I bet you wish I was Robert Taylor, and I bet you never tasted white peaches.’

You might come to Country Girl for the gossip, but you’ll stay for this memoir’s ardent portrait of a young woman struggling to find her identity both as a human being and a writer.

Ms O’Brien describes her young self this way: ‘I was ravenous. For food. For life. For the stories that I would write, except that everything was effervescent and inchoate in my overexcitable brain.’ She desired, she says, to be ‘drawn into the wild heart of things.’

Ms O’Brien was born in a village in County Clare, in the west of Ireland, in 1930. Her small family was religious. Her father was a farmer who drank and gambled; her mother was a former maid. She has described her village, Tuamgraney, as ‘enclosed, fervid, and bigoted.’

She was sent away to a convent school in Galway, but didn’t attend college. She moved to Dublin, where she worked in a drugstore while studying at the Pharmaceutical College at night.

She began to read serious literature, and she wondered: ‘Why could life not be lived at that same pitch? Why was it only in books that I could find the utter outlet for my emotions?’

Escape of a sort came in the form of marriage to a much older man, a writer named Ernest Gebler, with whom Ms O’Brien had two sons. They moved to London, and when Ms. O’Brien showed him her first novel, written during stolen moments, he read it and said to her, she reports, ‘You can write and I will never forgive you.’

Divorce soon followed. Ms O’Brien never remarried, but was involved in several long relationships, which she refers to only in passing in Country Girl. She is frank about what she calls her ‘pleasure-seeking endorphins.’

She refers to the ‘high trapeze at the commencement of love,’ and the attendant ‘surprise meetings, cancelled meetings, devouring jealousies, the rapture and the ruptures of an affair.’ Things got messy. ‘I lack the cunning and the dissimulation,’ she says, ‘necessary for a normal affair.’

M. O’Brien has a taste for excellent writing and excellent conversation, and among the writers who circulate through this memoir are Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, Harold Pinter and Günter Grass.

Then there’s Norman Mailer, who once said to her about her novels, she tells us, ‘You’re too interior, that’s your problem.’ Yet another of this memoir’s artful sidebars is an account of Ms. O’Brien’s friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Country Girl is, like Ms O’Brien’s best fiction, plain-spoken and poetic in equal measure…

Full review in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/books/edna-obriens-memoir-country-girl.html?ref=books

Review in The Telegraph, London: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9586710/Country-Girl-a-Memoir-by-Edna-OBrien-review.html

Review in The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/country-girl-by-edna-obrien-8210243.html

Edna O’Brien on being a writer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/video/2012/dec/07/edna-obrien-autobiography-country-girl-interview-video

The Paris Review, Edna O’Brien on the art of fiction (historic!) http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2978/the-art-of-fiction-no-82-edna-obrien

Buy this book: http://johngarratt.com.au/index.php/affiliatelist?id=70&affiliateid=8