With The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue, Edna O’Brien served notice that there was a new voice on the literary scene. From the detailed, evocative first page, with its shock to the senses of the cold linoleum on bare feet (her bedroom slippers are, on her mother’s orders, to be saved for visits to uncles and aunts), the preteen Caithleen Brady arises to the smell of frying bacon. She is anxious; her father has not come home after his night out. Shy and sensitive, she tells her first-person story, and she shares the action with her friend and alter ego, the volatile and sometimes malicious Bridget Brennan (Baba). O’Brien quickly establishes what will be recurrent themes in her fiction: the dysfunctional family, with the drunken, brutal father and the martyred, overprotective mother, the search of her protagonist for a personal identity with which she can be happy, against the splendidly realized world of Ireland in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
It is a world divided into warring camps, male and female, church and laity, and country and town, where Caithleen’s aspirations toward romantic love are doomed to failure. Her mother having drowned, Caithleen spends her mid-teen years boarding in a strict convent school, with its lingering smell of boiled cabbage, from which she and Baba contrive eventually to be expelled for writing a “dirty” note. In their late teens, joyously, they come to Dublin, Baba to take a business course, Caithleen to work as a grocer’s assistant until she can take the civil service examinations. Loneliness, however, follows them: Baba contracts tuberculosis; Caithleen’s man-friend, Mr. Gentleman (Jacques de Maurier), disappoints her. He is the first in a long line of rotters whom O’Brien’s heroines encounter, such as the ugly father, Eugene Gaillard, Herod, and Dr. Flagger. In O’Brien’s fictions, such unsavory types far outnumber the few good men with decent inclinations, such as Hickey the servant-man, and, in Casualties of Peace, the black man, Auro.
The Lonely Girl continues the girls’ saga; Baba is healthy again. It is, however, largely Caithleen’s story, and she is the narrator. The repressive effects of Caithleen’s family, her village community, and her convent education are again graphically shown. Caithleen becomes romantically involved with Eugene Gaillard, whose face reminds her of a saint and who is about the same height as her father; he is a cultivated snob and is often cold in bed and in the salon....
(The entire section is 1025 words.)