The publication of A Pagan Place marked the close of Edna O’Brien’s first hectic decade of literary activity, which produced six novels. A Pagan Place contains a number of familiar O’Brien characters and themes: the uncouth and violent father is one of many brutal men who appear in her fiction, and as in her earlier work, the novel is notable for its sexual explicitness and its unflattering portrayal of Catholicism. It is for this reason that her novels were banned in Ireland. In particular, A Pagan Place resembles her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), in that its subject is the development of an adolescent Irish girl, although its technique of using a second-person rather than a first-person narrator serves to distance the narrator from the action. In its tendency toward a stream-of-consciousness technique reminiscent of James Joyce, it looks forward to Night (1972).
Although one critic referred to A Pagan Place as O’Brien’s finest book, in general it had a poor critical reception. The reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, for example, described it as “sentimental and neurotic. . . a sad waste of talent.”
There is no doubt that the book has major flaws. In particular, O’Brien’s experiment with the second-person narrator becomes monotonous and self-centered. The staccato effect of too many short, childlike sentences is simply irritating. In spite of this, however, the book is sometimes extremely amusing, for those who like their humor vulgar, and occasionally attains real wit, as when family friend Hilda becomes a spiritualist and attempts to contact her dead husband: “. . . people said that as she hadn’t spoken a civil word to him when he was alive it was mere hypocrisy trying to talk to him when dead.” Perhaps the novel is most valuable for the occasional glimpse it gives of the acute way in which the child’s senses receive the world. The protagonist, for example, can separate the various smells of the countryside “the way a prism separated light”; the flutter of the leaves almost puts her into a trance, and as she runs through the fields the grass seems to dance with her and communicate with her.