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Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, 1982, 158 p.

 Girls in Their Married Bliss cover

Being a further installment of the lives of the two Irish friends introduced to us in The Country Girls and explored again in Girl with Green Eyes.

This book finds both of them married but, as its title sarcastically suggests, not entirely – or at all – happily. Unlike the previous two books in the series which were seen entirely from Kate’s point of view, here there are first person sections narrated by Baba, complete with her idiosyncratic spelling and grammar – in which frustrations with what she sees as Kate’s inadequacies are expressed. The other, third person, sections adopt Kate’s viewpoint. She is married to the Eugene Gaillard she took up with in the previous book and has a five year-old son, Cash. Baba married a “thick builder” who knew almost nothing about women when he met her – and still doesn’t. His money is welcome, though. Their marriage is childless at the start of the book.

Neither of the ‘girls’ acts in what you might call a mature manner even if Baba does have the thought, “People liking you or not liking you is an accident and is to do with them and not you.”

The trilogy could be seen as an illustration of the influences of background on behaviour and the harm a lack of a rounded education can do but this one seems to have devolved into a book about not particularly likeable people acting less than creditably – and muddling through with greater or lesser success.

It is though by modern standards incredibly short.

Pedant’s corner:- Gaeltacth (Gaeltacht,) “less that” (less than,) occasional missing commas before or after a piece of direct speech, a cleaners’ (a cleaner’s,) “Kate slung towards ..” (slunk?) “had looked … and drank from” (and drunk from,) plimsols (plimsolls,) connexion (connection.)

Girl with Green Eyes by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, copyright page has 1964 but this edition is a later reprint, 211 p. First published in 1962 as The Lonely Girl.

Girl with Green Eyes cover

This second part of O’Brien’s trilogy sees Caithleen Brady not really having learned the lesson of her infatuation with Mr Gentleman in The Country Girls. On one of her nights out with her friend Baba in Dublin (where she has lodgings and a job) she meets Eugene Gaillard and immediately finds him attractive. He is of course much older than her but she does not find out till a bit later he has a past which includes a wife and a child. Nevertheless she allows herself to be taken to his home in the country for weekends but only after several false starts (one visit being interrupted by her drunk of a father coming mob-handed to the house and assaulting Eugene) does she finally lose her virginity to him. Even her chance encounter with Mr Gentleman, where she is dismissed more or less curtly, does not forewarn her of the dangers of intimacy on such terms.

She finds the exposure of her background embarrassing and later Eugene characterises her (and by implication rural Ireland) as bred in “Stone Age ignorance and religious savagery.” Eugene’s wife turns the screw by threatening to prevent contact with his child and Caithleen fatally gives him an ultimatum.

Her experiences do give her insight though, “it is only with our bodies that we ever really forgive one another; the mind pretends to forgive, but it harbours and re-remembers in moments of blackness,” but the situation cannot hold. “Up to then I thought that being one with him in bed meant being one with him in life, but I knew now that I was mistaken, and that lovers are strangers, in between times.” Yet she still hopes Eugene will come to rescue her.

Pedant’s corner:- haemorridge (x2, haemorrhage,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (many times,) salame (salami,) sprung (sprang,) “a tick in his right cheek,) (tic,) “the Miss Walkers” (the Misses Walker,) “The inside of my lips were covered with water blisters” (The inside … was covered with … .)

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.)

Children of the Dead-End by Patrick MacGill

Caliban, 1983, 310 p, plus ix p Introduction. First published in 1914. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Children of the Dead End cover

In some respects this is an odd choice of book for inclusion in that 100 best Scottish Books list. MacGill was Irish and the book starts off in Ireland with the early life story of Dermod Flynn, offspring of a poor family living off potatoes and buttermilk (with the occasional variation of buttermilk and potatoes.) When Dermod takes exception to his schoolmaster picking on him and hits him back, his schooling is over and he is packed off to be an agricultural hired hand – in effect, a slave for six months – so that he can send money back to his mother and father. But the majority of the book is set in Scotland to where Flynn decamps as a member of a gang of potato-pickers and ends up as a tramp until, via a stint on the railway, he joins the workforce building the aluminium works at Kinlochleven.

In the text MacGill affects to be giving us Flynn’s unvarnished autobiography, denying any artifice, explicitly stating that he has taken incidents from his (Flynn’s) life – though the assumption is that they are from MacGill’s own as his biography is all but identical – and written them down, but there is an organisation to them, a novelistic arrangement that belies such simplicity.

The itinerant life, the characters Flynn meets, are described in detail. The brutal existence of the life of a navvy, the arbitrary dangers it involved, admirably demonstrated. The only interests of the men of the gangs at Kinlochleven – outside working hours – are drinking, gambling and fighting one another. Somehow through all that Flynn learns to read, to jot down poems and incidents which he sends to a newspaper and whose acceptance is briefly parlayed into a job as a journalist in London. But the “civilised” life does not suit him.

However, at the core of the book is Flynn’s connection with Norah Ryan, a girl from his village of Crossmoran in Donegal, who came across to Scotland as part of the potato-picking gang but to whom Flynn neglected to pay attention as he fell into gambling and, consequently, she into a relationship with a farmer’s son which will not end well.

MacGill also brings out the ungratefulness of the general public who do not care about the dangers the navvies endured, the risks they took, but after they are laid off – all but en masse – only see itinerant wasters before them.

Flynn’s bitterness towards the church – both Catholic, in Ireland and Scotland, and Presbyterian in Scotland – is no doubt a reflection of MacGill’s own. “The church soothes those who are robbed and never condemns the robber, who is usually a pillar of Christianity….. To me the industrial system is a great fraud, and the Church which does not condemn it is unfaithful and unjust to the working people….. I have never yet heard of missions for the uplifting of MPs, or for the betterment of stock exchange gamblers; and these people need saving grace a great deal more than the poor untutored working men. But it is the nature of things that piety should preach to poverty on its shortcomings, and forget that even wealth may have sins of its own.” He goes on, “In all justice the lash should be laid on the backs of the employers who pay starvation wages, and the masters who fatten on sweated labour. The slavery of the shop and the mill is responsible for the shame of the street.”

In its unalloyed description of the life of the working man Children of the Dead End is of a piece with many works of Scottish literature, so maybe its place on that 100 Best list is justified after all.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “is, indeed, that of MacGill’s” (that of MacGill.) Otherwise; “‘His name in Jim MaCrossan’” (is Jim Macrossan,) pig-stys (pig-styes or pig-sties,) “shot the crow” is defined in a footnote as ordering and drinking whisky without intent to pay (in my experience it has always meant to leave, to leave anywhere – or anyone – without notice,) “a group of children were playing” (a group was.) “A shower of fine ashes were continuously falling” (a shower was continuously falling,) by-and-bye (by-and-by,) Lough Lomond (yes, the Irish spelling is Lough, but Loch Lomond is in Scotland; so ‘Loch’. I would never write ‘Loch’ Neagh for the loch in Northern Ireland,) “a pair of eyes were gazing at me” (strictly, a pair was,) “there were a fair sprinkling of them” (there was a fair sprinkling,) sprung (sprang,) pigmies (pygmies,) dulness (I gather it’s an alternative spelling but I’ve only ever seen it before as dullness.) “For whole long months I saw a complete mass of bruises” (I was a complete mass of bruises makes more sense,) a phenomena (a phenomenon.)

Eclipse by John Banville

Picador, 2010, 218 p. First published in 2000.

Eclipse cover

Actor Alexander Cleave (the same Cleave who would reappear in Banville’s later Shroud and Ancient Light, it seems I have read this sequence of Banville books out of publication order) has retired from the stage and gone back to his childhood home. It is somewhat rundown, but holds memories in nearly every room. In it Cleave hears faint sounds and imagines it might be haunted – in fact sees his father one day in a doorway. But it turns out Quirke, the solicitor charged with its care, and his fifteen year-old daughter, Lily, who has been taken on ostensibly as a housekeeper, are living in some of the vacant rooms.

The narrative is almost all Cleave’s musings and remembrances – there is very little dialogue in the novel – yet despite there not being much in the way of plot (the only significant occurrence in the book occurs off the page) Banville readily manages to hold the attention. There is something almost liquid in his sentences, each is perfectly constructed and the word choices are usually immaculate.

The eclipse of the title is both actual (that of 1999 takes place during the course of the novel) but also metaphorical. That significant occurrence is, though, foreshadowed when Cleave says, ‘I have the feeling, the conviction, I can’t rid myself of it, that something has happened, something dreadful, and I haven’t taken sufficient notice, haven’t paid due regard, because I don’t know what it is.’

This is a portrait of a man who has glided through life apparently without it really touching him or he it, only approaching animation when pretending, on the stage, to be someone else, but in the end faced with that “something dreadful” about which nothing can be done. Most lives have at least one of those.

Pedant’s corner:- “outside of me” (outside me ,) “door hinges squeak tinily” (tinily? In a small way? I don’t think so. Tinnily makes more sense,) duffel coat (duffle coat is the British spelling) “carrying in one hand that seemed a trident” (what seemed a trident,) accordeon (accordion, several instances,) slips-ons (slip-ons,) “and Quirke he came forward” (doesn’t need the “he”.)

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