A compelling and beautiful trilogy of novels which deserve to be read.
Known as The Country Girls Trilogy, these three novels by the Irish author Edna O’Brien caused a sensation when they appeared in the 1960s. The books describe two young women’s road to sexual freedom and are often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues. In 2019 BBC News included The Country Girls on its list of the ‘100 most influential novels’.
The stories are very simple, really. The first book – The Country Girls (1960) – describes the childhood and young womanhood of two Irish girls from a small village at the back-of-beyond. Caithleen ‘Kate’ Brady and Bridget ‘Baba’ Brennan both have difficult lives. Kate loses her mother to an accidental drowning and her father is almost continually drunk. Baba’s father is a vet, but he and her drunken socialite mother have little time for their daughter. The girls attend a convent school but manage, through Baba’s machinations, to be expelled, with very little learning between them.
In the second book – The Lonely Girl (1962) – we follow the girls to Dublin. While they work (Kate) and pretend to study (Baba) the girls find freedom, mostly of the sexual variety. Kate takes up with an older divorced gentleman, and Baba with a succession of young men. At one stage Kate’s father and cousins come and kidnap her back to the village, but she escapes back to her lover.
Later, in the third book – Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964) – we find them in London, both married. Kate is unbelievably bored with her grey husband in their grey house, and sets out to have an affair. Her husband finds out and throws her out. She seeks help from Baba, who has her hands full with her own troubles with her rich and vulgar builder husband. The story ends with them in their 40s disillusioned but free.
The Country Girls – both the trilogy and the novel – are set in a repressive period of Irish history following World War II. In fact, all three books were banned by the Irish censorship board and faced significant public disdain in Ireland. There were even some public book burnings. Nonetheless, in 1962 O’Brien won the Kingsley Amis Award for The Country Girls and the story was later adapted into a 1983 film.
What did I think of them?
The books are beautifully written. The prose is almost lyrical and the descriptions of the Irish backwater village are compelling, especially in the first book. In my mind’s eye I could see every house and lane; and I could see Kate’s rundown home and hear her mother warn her of all things ‘unmentionable’ (basically everything below the waist).
Having said that, I found all three books terribly depressing and upsetting. The morals of Ireland in the 1950s were enough to make me seethe with anger. The girls’ parents and the nuns at the convent school kept them ignorant of life, and gave them no education whatsoever. No wonder they went off the deep end when they arrived in Dublin, where they were free of restraints.
In the second book, The Lonely Girl, when Kate’s father forcibly takes her back to the village with the intention of keeping her there forever, to save her from her divorced lover, I had to put the book down and go into the garden to swear quietly. And when Kate’s aunt quite seriously says that ’divorce is worse than murder’ I had to tell myself that I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, we’ve all seen programmes and read books about the Convent Laundries, for example, and the paedophile priests, so we should know what twisted morals drove that society.
The third book in the trilogy, Girls in Their Married Bliss, feels different to the other two but it still packs a punch of a different sort. For example, when Kate is forced to leave her home after an adulterous affair, her husband (the married lover from book two) removes her child and vows she will never see the boy again. But very satisfyingly, he finds that 1960s London is a far different prospect from Ireland and the courts give Kate back her child.
So, my verdict: beautiful and terrible stories. Depressing and upsetting, but hugely important. These books are about as far from my usual crime fiction as you can get, but crime is there nonetheless. The whole society and its morals were a crime against humanity. The books, especially the second one, have been described as humorous. And there were certainly glimpses of humour here and there, just enough to lift the depression which the stories were lowering me into. I must give the first two books 5-Stars and the third 4 Stars.
Review by: Freyja