Belfast Telegraph

It's hard to find words to do justice to Edna's talent

By Mary Kenny

I most recently saw Edna O'Brien at a celebratory dinner at the Irish Embassy in London and, although now almost 82, she remains as glamorous and as striking as she appears on the front cover of her new memoir, Country Girl.

Edna retains masterly powers of description and the episode in which her family, including a brother portrayed as bullying and domineering, attempt to abduct her to prevent her living with the older, married Ernest Gebler reappears here as memoir, where first it was told as narrative in The Country Girls.

The family, in the novel, can be read as brutal, rough peasants standing in the way of a daughter's right to liberty, but more subtly, in retrospect, we can see that her parents were naively trying to protect the young Edna from a disastrous marriage.

In the Edna O'Brien story, we see the artist's vocation burning a trail to her destiny. She had to leave provincial Ireland, and even literary Dublin: she had to contract a marriage which would bring her into a milieu which would provide literary connections and help her publish.

And, although she goes through a few wretched years as a housewife in Putney, soon she is big on the literary scene and her career is launched. Edna, in her prime, led a fabulous life and she manages to recount it with wonder, the names never sounding like name-dropping.

Her love affairs are described with emotional truth, but never with explicitness. Two men - identified only as 'Jay' and 'Lochinvar' - are recalled as great loves. Touchingly, she yearned for a baby in her 40s, but it was not to be.

Her experiences in New York were glittering with celebrities - historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Al Pacino, Norman Mailer - and with a rewarding and vivid friendship with Jacqueline Onassis.

Jackie told Edna that she was one of the three people in the world she loved most and Edna captures the enigma and the powerful sense of entitlement of the lady's character. Yet Edna's head is never turned: whether happy, or unhappy, the artist in her keeps her rooted.

There are some piquant revelations: Charles Haughey, then the Republic's minister for justice, emerges unedifyingly, calling Edna's first novel "filth" mainly, it seems, to curry favour with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid; while a priest, Father Peter Connolly, is Edna's literary champion against a raft of womenfolk who think her a hussy.

She is on weaker ground when she reflects on matters of history, politics, or indeed economics, on which, by her own admission, she has little authority.

Her social history isn't always reliable - she claims that Irish women didn't smoke in the 1930s, but the women's magazines of the time feature lipsticky cigarette ads. I would have added little points of information to some of her vignettes: Jeanne Campbell, the journalist, wasn't just Norman Mailer's wife - she was Lord Beaverbrook's grand-daughter, a meaningful dynastic connection.

But a novelist of Edna's sure touch may be as wise to withhold information as to provide it and the entire narrative leaves you with an enchanted feeling of having been drawn into a life of great internal richness.

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