The Country Girls sent shock waves through rural Ireland when it was published in 1960. Across the sea, London was about to enter the Swinging Sixties but in Eire, sex was seldom mentioned openly and especially not when it involved unmarried girls. Edna O’Brien’s novel about two girls who leave their convent upbringing and small village life in search of life and love in city, was castigated for daring to break the silence. O’Brien, who was living in London at the time, found her novel banned in her home country and her parents so ashamed that they refused to speak to her.
Reading the book now, the elements that were considered so startling in the 1960s, seem creepy rather than shocking.
This is essentially a coming of age story of Caithleen and Baba, two young country girls on the verge of womanhood who leave the sheltered environment of their convent school for the city in search of life, love and fun. Before they get to Dublin however we learn about their childhood, about drunken fathers, and impoverished families, of convent education and schoolgirl acts of rebellion and misbehaviour..
All of this would make for a novel that is nothing remarkable, those themes and events having been played out in many other works already. O’Brien signals that something is different however when she introduces a figure known only as Mr Gentleman. Although he is decidedly older and also married, he begins to take the 14-year-old Caithleen out in his large black car; first on a shopping trip to Limerick and then dinner where he encourages her to drink wine (she decides she prefers the taste of lemonade). Each time they meet, he edges across the barrier of acceptability, hand holding turns into kisses of her hand then all the way up her arm. By the time she’s in Dublin, they’re spending the whole night kissing and canoodling in his car watching the sun rise over the sea. Our Caithleen isn’t exactly reliable – there are lots of gaps in her accounts of what really happens between them – but it’s not difficult to fill in the blanks. Is she really as innocent as she seems? She’s an intelligent girl but she doesn’t seem to realise that she is slowly being groomed and that there really is no happy ending possible.
O’Brien brings the spirit of Eire vividly to life through two characters who make you laugh one moment and make you cringe the next as yet another example of their naivety is revealed. On the whole though I found it a bit so-so. The story of how O’Brien actually came to write this book and the repercussions on her marriage (as revealed in her 2013 memoir Country Girl), is far more interesting than the book itself.