The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, 1981, 186 p. First published 1960.

The Country Girls cover

Narrated by Caithleen (Kate) Brady, this is the story of two childhood companions. I use that word as friends doesn’t seem to be quite right since Bridget (Baba) Brennan, the other girl concerned, isn’t really a true friend and is always likely to lead Kate astray.

The book is set mainly in rural Ireland in the very early 1950s. Kate’s mother is put upon, her father a drunk, and feckless. When her mother is drowned as she was returning to her parents’ home (apparently having decided to leave her husband) Kate’s life changes as she is taken in by Baba’s parents. Kate wins a scholarship to a convent boarding school to which Baba is also going as a paid-for pupil. Boarding schools are of course hell, convent ones even more so.

Kate’s life is only made bearable by the attentions paid to her by the local rich man known to everyone as Mr Gentleman. Gentlemanly in manner he may be but married as he is and much older than her his behaviour to Kate is nothing short of predatory (and nowadays would be called grooming) even if it is a long time before it comes close to becoming sexual conduct beyond kissing. That his wife seems to be in poor health (or at least highly strung) is no sort of excuse. Nevertheless, Kate is enraptured by him.

Details of Irish rural and urban life (after school, from which Baba contrived to get them both expelled, Kate gets a job in a grocer’s in Dublin where she and Baba share a flat let by a landlady of Central European origin) are scattered through the book. Expressive of the repression prevalent in those days, things barely hinted at, is that, even at sixteen, Kate’s naivety in terms of the facts of life is profound.

Reading this I was struck by the similarities it bears to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a later work of course, and the descriptions of landscape are akin to those in Scottish novels.

Also worthy of note is the book’s length, at 186 pages, remarkably short by today’s standards. Yet it says all it needs to.

Pedant’s corner:- “which was hundred yards up the road” (was a hundred yards,) some instances of commas missing before and at the end of direct speech, cist (cyst,) gamp (used here for a nun’s headdress,) “crinothine fire-screens” (first result on Google for crinothine is from Google books results and comes from this book,) satchet (sachet?) “a memorium” (an in memoriam.)

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