It’s fifty years – a half century! – since she published her first novel, The Country Girls, a tour de force, dismissed for many years by the critical establishment as women’s fiction (pre-Chick Lit) and denounced as evil and burnt by her parish priest. Her mother, when she got a copy of the novel, blacked out unacceptable phrases and sent it back to O’Brien with no other comment. It was banned in Ireland.
“One could not but rage,” O’Brien said recently in an interview speaking of Ireland, “but there’s also the sadness.” Ireland loves her now.
At his first sight of it, it was hard for him, as he said, not to imagine those men, young though they were, destined for all eternity to be kept digging some never-ending grave.
O’Brien returns to some of her characters from her very first novels – Mr. Gentleman, the aged lover of the teenage Cait in The Country Girls features here. This time, it is his wife, Mildred, telling her story, waiting outside a fortune-teller’s called Madame Cassandra. With all its Greek references – she keeps coming back to Dido – Mildred tells the story of their marriage, filled as it is with secrets and his infidelities. In “Two Mothers”, she returns to another fictionalized account of her mother, but she has turned into a mythopoetic figure, a halfling between the dour life in reality and the life of the Gods. O’Brien has returned again and again in her fiction to her family and her disastrous marriage – but there is a lightness here, a sense of forgiveness.
The lyricism of the writing is beautiful and true. In “Manhattan Medley” she tells the story of an affair with a married architect in Manhattan – they court under a skyscraper, a “tall, brown building that seemed to tilt like a lake above us”. When news of their affair leaks out, a woman judges her with “eyes [that] glittered like paste jewelry”. The narrator thinks:
Only fools think that men and women love differently. Fools and pedagogues. I tell you the love of men for women is just as heartbreaking, just as muddled, just as bewildering, and in the end just as unfinished.
The aching sound of that last sentence, the anaphoric use of “just as”, repeated to stretch out the feeling, only to end with “unfinished” gives a sense of how deeply the form speaks to the content.
Two characters – the mother in “Two Mothers” and the narrator’s cousin in the final story, “Old Wounds”, leave never-written or unfinished letters. The demons that have haunted O’Brien – Ireland’s lack of forgiveness (“I am haunted” O’Brien said in an interview) – are presented here with a modicum of peace. Coming to terms with the “unfinished”, the collection ends with a gorgeous paragraph:
I could still see the island, shrouded in a veil of thin gray rain. Why, I asked myself, did I want to be buried there? Why, given the different and gnawing perplexities? It was not love and it was not hate but something for which there is no name, because to name it would be to deprive it of its truth.
Who needs exorcism when the ghosts are finally sitting at the feast.