The Country Girls is the first novel of Irish writer Edna O’Brien and a quintessential coming-of-age story. It was published in 1960 and immediately banned in Ireland and even burned by some priests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the sexual awakening of its protagonist Caithleen Brady, seems very mild indeed to modern readers.
The story follows Caithleen as a 14 year old girl growing up in a Clare village with her more worldly, and sometimes vicious friend Baba. Baba convinces Caithleen to do something that will get them thrown out of their convent school. But its only a small setback,with the girls engineering their escape to Dublin, jobs and men. The push and pull of this passionate and at times bitter friendship was one of the strengths of this story for me.
But even more moving was the story of Caithleen’s family, her long-suffering mother who holds the family farm together with loyal labourer Hickey, while her father is off on constant drinking bouts. Its a situation that can only end tragically and the understated way in which O’Brien writes about the effect of this on Caithleen is very beautiful.
She also employs the first person narrator to display the main character’s innocence, by her wide eyed interpretation of events that the reader can easily see past. It’s an interesting choice because the first person narrator has to necessarily be older and wiser by the time she tells the story, yet she still maintains this touching naivety.
My other reason for reading this story was to see how she handles the Catholicism. One of the criticisms I’ve had of my own novel is that there’s not enough ‘God’ in there for a story about a Catholic girl. But this book reassures me my instincts are right. The Catholic church is ever present, looming over Ireland and the lives of these girls, but they don’t spend much time thinking about God and praying. I feel that I’ve got that balance right.
I enjoyed this quite short novel for O’Brien’s ability to never lose sight of beauty and optimism in the face of some hard truths – about alcoholism, poverty and predatory older men.