“Are you or are you not a good girl?” Edna O’Brien’s mother wants to know. The options are telling; they imply a less-than-even division of territory. Imagine a small saintly island, surrounded by a raging, pagan sea of non-goodness, mortal sin and diabolical decadence. The miniature haven is, of course, Ireland. And at the time Lena O’Brien poses the question, in the early hours of the morning, from the bed in which she has listened for her delinquent daughter’s footsteps, Edna O’Brien has fled the country, at least physically.
As any reader of O’Brien’s indelible fiction knows, Ireland nonetheless endures as a state of mind. And mothers are forever, whether or not they write you constantly and visit annually, as did O’Brien’s. They are yet more so when they surprise you from beyond the grave. As her mother’s will is read in the opening pages of O’Brien’s memoir, “Country Girl,” she learns that she has been disinherited. Across the room, her brother snakes an arm around his wife and breaks the startled silence: “My darling, now we all know who Mam really loved.”
O’Brien’s early years are rich in downwardly mobile disappearance. Much that she loves is lost, stolen or strayed. She comes of age in a claustrophobic County Clare town with no library, three grocers and 27 pubs. Early on she learns what it takes to entertain the bailiff or elude a drunken father. Some profligate families lose orchards and dream of Moscow. Others yearn for America (O’Brien’s mother) or the pub (her father). Both O’Briens are allergic to literature. This childhood is a future writer’s paradise, provincial and violent, rich in raw and scalding indignities, privations, persecutions, shame.
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