Edna O'Brien O'Brien, Edna (Vol. 3) - Essay

O'Brien, Edna (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

O'Brien, Edna 1932–

An Irish novelist now living in England, Ms. O'Brien writes sensitive fiction about Ireland, Catholicism, sexuality, and the condition of women. Probably because of their frank sexuality, her novels are banned in Ireland. She is the author of The Country Girls and The Lonely Girl. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The women Edna O'Brien writes about have led lives similar to her own. They were born in Ireland around 1930 and left early to live "among the foe. The Brits, the painted people. A land where the king has piles." Usually they have married disastrously and have only a son or two to show for it. That O'Brien is altogether the country girl come to town we must take on trust, despite her literary slyness. (The Brits may still be painted, metaphorically, but offhand I don't think there's been a monarch with official piles since William III.) She emerged in the early sixties and has since been averaging a book every two years, one of which was made into a film, "The Girl with Green Eyes."

All of them are about women getting a kind of higher education at the hands of men. Jobs and professions notwithstanding, they are descendants of Byron's ladies, for whom love was their whole existence. Like other exponents of the theme, O'Brien writes disappointedly. Her protagonists move gamely from one unsatisfactory man to the next, taking notes as they go. They have divested themselves of illusions and have assumed a bachelor bravado, letting the sexual chips fall where they may.

It is a modish literary device, this detachment that enables a writer to rotate 360 degrees, the better to see and convey objective truth about subjective experience….

Night is a soliloquy. The heroine—a Mary this time—has become middle-aged. She is recapitulating her life as she lies in a four-poster in the elegant house she is minding. It is also a summary of previous books. O'Brien is like a painter composing variations on a few shapes and colors: characters and incidents recur—the friendly gasman, an anecdote about a tinker woman being prosecuted for stealing a pair of shoes. She is also a poet in the good hard sense of the word, for she encloses a complete thought in a phrase or sentence, stringing them all together in a lovely rhythm that seldom falters. Her range, also, makes her outstanding in the current genre of liberated female writing.

Vivien Raynor, "A Sly Country Girl Come to Town," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 7, 1973, p. 4.

[Edna] O'Brien's first novel, The Country Girls, thirteen years ago, took her quasi-autobiographical heroine as far as Dublin; her second, The Lonely Girl, took her abroad. There seems little reason to doubt that O'Brien is still producing (largely) confessional fiction, tricked out with a deliberately transparent persona. The style has changed from impudent charm and wide-eyed mischief to lyrics of the loins, laced with a warmly cherished sense of worldly disillusion, but essentially her new book [Night] is her first book a decade later, a proclamation of her defiance of her upbringing. "Take that, mum and da," she implies over and over again.

In other novels and stories, too, she has been detailing her mucoid odyssey of discovery with increasing delight in her daring and worldliness. It would have been false and precious for her heroine to have remained the Caithleen of her first book; that is not the argument. But it would have been tedious by now to follow her bed stands except that she has some humor and some insight, what she describes is—au fond and sometimes in spite of herself—quite genuine, and she is subject to fits of really good writing.

Stanley Kauffmann, in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 30, 1973, p. 78.