Atypical Edna O’Brien story begins on a square of green. A stone farmhouse looms behind, with a slick spot on the flagstones where the same tin can is emptied every morning by the hired man. Pigs are somewhere in the mix, as are sheep and cows. Around and above and within the green floats another colour, that of deep velvet, the sacred heart, a dog’s tongue. This is the austere plush of the Catholic Church, which is everywhere. A road skips like a ribbon past the front door, punctuated by one of the few unbeautiful things in the landscape: men who lie in wait to do pooly in you.
Your father is drunk, or trying not to be, and your mother is ‘the sideboard with everything in it’. You have red lights in your hair and the whites of your eyes are delicately blue, like a baby’s. You have been sexually imprinted by travelling productions of Dracula, which will make your work particularly resonant to Catholic girls who came of age in the 1990s. Your voice, located a league deeper than other people’s, is a wellspring flavoured by place. It rises up all itself, struck out of the stony ground by a rod. If you are not in Ireland, you’ve gone somewhere to get away from Ireland.
Finally: you are very likely a girl, or ceased to be one just yesterday. Other people find you daft, but you are not daft – you are channelling your observation into other things. Your eye cuts across the bias, which makes the silk cling. Over the decades of her career, starting with The Country Girls in 1960, O’Brien has kept such a devoted tryst with Irish girlhood that it has overshadowed her convincing conjurings of men in books like House of Splendid Isolation and stories like ‘Tough Men’ and ‘Shovel Kings.’ On the cover of the 1965 edition of her fourth novel, August Is a Wicked Month, it says: ‘Miss O’Brien is an expert on girls and their feelings.’
So. ‘Hold on a minute,’ I said, when her latest novel arrived in the mail, ‘this book is about Boko Haram???’
Edna O’Brien has been our oracle for nearly sixty years now; what we have been reading all this time are trances of real imagination, sustained states into which one woman has whipped herself. It helps that she’s the kind of larger-than-life figure who must now be seen as a non-renewable resource. Her author photos have a marvellously far-seeing and otherworldly look, as if she’s watching two dragons mate through a hole in the clouds. (If you think you look this way in author photos, you don’t. Only Edna O’Brien does.) Her interviews are a delight – high-toned and terminally punctuated, but at the same time digressive, distractible. ‘I detest a word that people use a lot, be cool. Why be cool when life is full of passion? Of love and hate and murders and marriages and dramas. Cool? Cool is for a drink. A soft drink, even. So that was my remains. My burning, burning feeling.’ In her mix of erudition and gravity and sentiment there is a resilient echo of Miss Jean Brodie:
‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’
‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’
‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’
The pleasures of this personality are abundant in 2012’s Country Girl, a memoir notable in the first half for its reality and the second for its unreality. It climaxes when Jude Law appears and, moving through the gold air like Dickie Greenleaf himself, wordlessly kisses her by a swimming pool while she is wearing a pair of water-wings branded with the legend nivea cream. Marguerite Duras buys her suppositories; Shirley MacLaine reads her palm and declares that she has been ‘mother and prostitute, many times’. It does not, in life or literature, get better than this. (‘Edna won’t reveal which passage of her eventful life she’s committing to paper first, but says she has written about 25,000 words over the past few days and is tired,’ a 2010 piece in the Belfast Telegraph announced.)
In other moods I prefer an earlier memoir, Mother Ireland, published in 1976. This is a marvellous mix of Bowen’s Court, The White Goddess, and one of those travel books that’s narrated entirely from the back of a cab, because the writer is suffering from a bygone illness that requires them to have a blanket over their legs. It describes O’Brien’s 1940s upbringing in County Clare from a distance not yet far enough to be fond; she wrote in complicated self-exile from Ireland, which had banned her first six books. Mother Ireland contains some of her finest evocations of childhood outside her first novel, The Country Girls, and the underrated A Pagan Place (1970), and gives us some of the quotes about Ireland with which she has become inseparably associated.
You are Irish you say lightly, and allocated to you are the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits, whereas you know that in fact a whole entourage of ghosts resides in you, ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living. To meet one’s kinsmen is to unleash a whole sea of unexpected emotionalism. I was having a walk one afternoon in London, and passing a building site I slowed down to protect my eyes from the likelihood of grit. A young Roscommon boy asked, ‘Are you happy?’
‘Not very,’ I said.
He beamed at hearing a fellow countrywoman.
‘Any chance of tea at four?’
‘No chance,’ I said (I had to be somewhere).
‘You won’t forget us, will you?’ he said.
‘I won’t,’ I said.
What is her mission? In part, it is to name the things that do not exist in other contexts, or at least not as robustly. Dusty milk. Oyster silk and real oysters, too big to go down. Sheep’s heads. Pared corns and streelish (slatternly) dresses, coats with astrakhan collars. Court shoes glimpsed through shop windows and brogues stolen off a windowsill. Chickens drawn and undrawn, cream skimmed with the fingertips. My swallow, as she calls it, and what a particular thing. You have been allowed very far into a writer who lets you know about her swallow, when it’s working and when it isn’t. Cool? Cool is for a drink.
There is a mother (Lena) who has been to America, who might have had a different life there, and a father (Michael) who periodically folds himself into the arms of the monks to dry out. There is the convent where Edna was educated, and the eyebrows of the nun she loved passionately there. There is also the changeable shape of her first husband, whom she met while working at a chemist’s in Dublin and married at 24 – Ernest Gébler, a petty legend and a loon for the ages. (‘He took a photograph of me with my long hair, standing by the hall door, somewhat self-consciously, and with pride sent it to his first wife.’) Petty legends play their part, however: he is as well described and crops up in as many works as the square of green outside the farmhouse. Finicky to the point of cruelty and with a touch of the foreign, which allows him first to be enchanted by her and then to reject her entirely, almost as an extension of her country, her people’s ways. When this man shows up in the stories and novels, it’s all over. The ultimate revenge on a man who must always be right, who insists that there’s no such thing as a blue road when your own shoes have been tarred by one, is to have the last word – to set down the details one by one, to remember that he used to read out loud to you from a book called The Culture of the Abdomen, by someone named Mr F.A. Hornibrook. To preserve him as a man of his time, while you go on and on.
To name these touchstones gives the impression that O’Brien’s fiction is reducible, which it is not. There are books where the mind is high above the narrative, handing down pronouncements, and books where it lies along the ground like a fog, seeming to vanish in the bright sun, or moves alongside the characters like a horse with one dark eye. She walks in the linking of two arms and takes care of the blades of grass. Places tend to disown their most familial writers, and when Ireland disowned her it did so because of this closeness, and the tone of her voice when she said, my nun.
When we brought my mother to Ireland it was during the 2017 hurricane, and I showed her a largescale mural of Edna O’Brien in an alley where a man – at nine in the morning – called after my mother for a date, exclaiming: ‘She’s got the Irish eyes!’ We drove out into the countryside, despite the warnings of a concierge who told us it would be on his conscience if we perished, and despite radio reports of property damage and arguments about whether teenagers attempting to surf the cataclysm should be put in jail. (‘I was terrified,’ one woman said of a downed branch in her front garden, in a voice that seemed to be wearing a scarf and rollers.) The countryside was familiar and foreign; the landscape bloomed with our pure ignorance of it. What, we kept asking each other, were those yellow flowers everywhere? In Dublin I thought of Joyce, when I saw a tree that looked like a wizard I thought of Yeats, but driving through the countryside I thought of O’Brien and her mother and the hired man Hickey, and her father off somewhere drying out, with those tender monks who were on silence. The rain hammered for half an hour once, but I couldn’t tell whether the hurricane had come or whether Ireland was just being more Ireland – the way Ohio is more Ohio when the fireflies come out in that margin like orange filmstrip at the end of the day; the way Missouri is more Missouri during a tornado, as if the land has been rolled up and set going like a top.
‘Gorse!’ I yelled finally, from the back seat of the car that my mother was somehow driving beautifully. Through our simple marvelling we became part of a phenomenon O’Brien describes in Mother Ireland: ‘The visitors talk and are talked at, they fish, they fowl, they eat brown bread, dip into holy wells, kiss wishing stones, are bowled over but have no desire to stay.’ We didn’t kiss the Blarney Stone, but only because the hurricane had closed the castle.
I suppose what I am describing is fabric. A country is another country to a visitor, sharper in some ways, and ecstatically free of proper names, but only because we haven’t learned them yet, not because we’ve been called on to provide new ones. In a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, O’Brien’s hesitance to travel abroad in her fiction, even to Northern Ireland, is apparent:
But when I stayed in Northern Ireland to research and write the article, I realised that the Catholics are second-class citizens. They live in terrible slums, in poverty, and know no way of improving their conditions. I have not set a novel in Northern Ireland simply because I do not know enough about it. I dislike cant – you get that from politicians. Writers have to dig deep for experience. I might go and live there for a while, in order to discover and later write about it. But so far I have refrained from bringing the topic into a book merely as a voyeur.
In later decades she displayed a mounting frustration with the smallness of her own patch of green.
And, indeed, my world is circumscribed. I don’t know big worlds. I don’t know what’s happening to people who live in awful camps. I don’t know what’s happening to women in Muslim countries married at the age of 12. I read about these things, I see them on television, as we all do. I am very aware of the enormity of the world around me and unfortunately, the limitation of my own scope; my experience, my situation etc.
After those first six banned novels, and a run of excellent (and underrated) short story collections in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a turn in the 1990s to the news. The INLA leader Dominic McGlinchey appears in light disguise, as does the real-life triple homicide of an Irish woman, her son and a priest. This preoccupation would eventually result in 2015’s The Little Red Chairs, which begins in the pinned locality of the west of Ireland but soon enlarges to include a Bosnian Serb war criminal and The Hague – though her descriptions of stone massages are still more immediate than her descriptions of the courtroom, and we wouldn’t want it otherwise.
Her new novel, Girl, is written from the perspective of one of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram. It is easy to see why O’Brien wanted to write about it: she has always been attracted to stories of girlhood rupture, and perhaps more important, to the mechanics of community ostracism that often follow in their wake. As a writer, she appears to be hyperfocused on the individual, down to the lights in the hair and the pores of the skin, but she always moves out to show the family, the village’s immune response to a wound on the communal body. A recent profile in the New Yorker detailed some of the field research she did before she began to write, including two visits to Nigeria.
Officials from the Irish Embassy picked her up. Her first ambition was to ‘meet girls who will tell me their story’, she recalled. O’Brien told me that she wanted ‘their diaries, their souls’, and referred to Anne Frank. But the girls she met were ‘very shy, and also reluctant to talk’. Committed to producing a work of fiction that had documentary authority, she made contact with social workers, doctors and journalists.
The real mistake , seen so often in travel writing, is to set foot on the promontory of an unfamiliar country, let a photogenic wave crash over you, and present yourself as the discoverer. O’Brien hasn’t done that here. Instead, some texture is absent from the Girl’s inner monologue, from the self-mythology that chants in the background of experience. There is a thinness, as if every third word is missing, which does odd things to her patented rich rhythms. While this could be waved away as the language of shock, trauma, being prised apart by unknown hands, it isn’t quite – and anyway we can’t know, since we don’t hear the voice of the Girl before she has been kidnapped. It is more the language of first encounter. If the Girl’s interior is a forest, neither do the trees there have names. Landscapes breathe out a book’s oxygen, and we turn a little blue here. It strikes me particularly that O’Brien doesn’t know how present to make the dead, that she could not write here, as she did in The Little Red Chairs, ‘Only one survivor and that was my grandfather and he appeared to her every year on the anniversary, March the 24th, God’s truth … stood at the end of her bed.’ Where is that inch of levitation that carries us through life, that entourage of ghosts?
What we do not expect of her writing is for it to be either impersonal or tongue-tied, a mixture of the biblical vague and a book written without the letter E. Survival instinct alone drives the Girl. Her life bites at her heels, and not a single choice she makes seems to spring from a distinct personality – and when that’s true, you don’t have a novel, you have a nature documentary, where a soothing voice narrates the fate of far-off prey. ‘What had happened to the girl I once was. She was gone.’
If the depictions of rape in The Little Red Chairs were brutal (a crowbar makes an appearance) the ones in Girl are even worse. I’m not squeamish when it comes to fiction, but still I don’t feel that clots of blood dripping into a bucket is an image that open into the dimension of the real; far more effective is: ‘I vowed that I would tighten myself into a knot, a buried bulb, deep in the earth’s hole and the elite man would claw and scrape like a badger, but he would not reach me. I would shut the doors of my mind.’ But these revelations come rarely. More often we are given lines like ‘I both died and did not die.’
The Girl is finally named on page 50 as Maryam, when she is taken from the rest of the kidnapped schoolgirls for marriage to a soldier called Mahmoud, who has distinguished himself. This marriage brings Maryam a few pages of relative peace, and it also brings her Babby. (A generation poisoned by the internet will laugh at this name, but it is not the genericism it seems: Babbie was the pet name of poor Eily in O’Brien’s story ‘A Scandalous Woman’.) Babby is attended by the same flat and traumatised pronouncements: ‘I did not love her enough’; ‘It was hard to know who was mother and who was child.’ Eventually, Maryam and Babby escape into the Sambisa Forest with a girl called Buki, who enters Maryam’s life in a way familiar to O’Brien’s longtime readers, by shyly offering her food late at night in a dormitory.
A Girl who won a notebook as a prize for an essay on nature, but who does not know what the trees are called. A bird with a chestnut belly, but no name. Her flight with Buki and Babby through this landscape is even more disorienting than it would otherwise have been; it’s as if our feet never touch the ground. As the book progresses, we can feel images being tested: would something slip like loose luggage? Would they be babes in the wood? Do people get het up in this place, do they bury the hatchet? Because we feel this hesitation, a distrust enters into the reading. Would Maryam really describe one beautiful girl’s braids as snakelike, and another’s as being little serpents? (Or, later, show us a scene of her mother ripping off her extensions and flinging them away from her like dead rats, ‘as if they were evil’?) Could Buki ever be seen with as much flaw or complication as the wonderful Baba in The Country Girls, who gives me such a pain in my chest when she tricks Caithleen out of her mother’s ring? Buki is dispatched with two fangholes to the ankle, after running out into the night in the wake of an argument about what a particular fruit is called. One says one thing, the other says another. As Maryam digs her grave, she recites a list of foods they might someday have planted together: ‘spinach, onions, sorghum, rice, millet, nuts, Irish potatoes’, and no phrase in the rest of the book shines with as much pale powdery aura as that last one.
The strength of O’Brien’s work, apart from lyricism, has always been its reliable specificity. Her characters are always wearing the right shoes – whether fine or worn through at the heel, they are the ones they would be wearing. But in this context she does not know, so the narrative, instead of riding alongside like a horse or walking arm in arm with the main character, is a room lit by a single bare bulb, where the author is asking the Girl questions. Like this, was it like this, would it be like this? She does not have enough time with her; there are thousands of questions she will not get to ask. What are we wearing this year, what is the name of this little firm-fleshed fruit. She is standing while the Girl sits. She wants to know, but the cloth isn’t there between her fingertips, and the Girl keeps her diary close to her chest. She offers little gifts out of her own life: a game of dolly’s operation, that tarred blue road, even her swallow. ‘Irish potatoes.’ Maryam is just real enough that we want more for her, something as small as a favourite colour.
The terror of the book is not just what happens to the Girl, but the lack of real language to counter it. The cant of the chief emir of the militants, in the opening pages, is matched later by the platitudes of the president. Everywhere Maryam turns, after a rescue that feels like not much of a rescue at all, she meets the insufficiency of language, an insufficiency that eventually expands to fill the book. At least in the forest she was not yet a story. When she leaves it, no one wants her, yet the whole world reaches towards her to make its claims.
Then a strange thing happens, a life-strange thing: the end of the book finds both the Girl and the author back in the convent again, safe. They are rescued, sheltered, fed childhood foods. Pancakes and maple syrup. St Anthony medals and holy water. Babby laughs her first real laugh, and the moon outside the window wears a halo. The footing is suddenly sure, strong, and there is something to look forward to at last. A nun is coming from Ireland; she knows her. My nun.
There are those who have been in love with nuns and those who haven’t; this is something that does not go away. They expel her and expel her, but still she might show up anywhere, with a holy card for you. She might even be yourself, your own future safety and serene old age, hands folded in peace or in prayer. What does Hickey say to Caithleen, at the beginning of The Country Girls?
‘I’m going to be a nun when I grow up; that’s what I was thinking.’
‘A nun you are in my eye.’
If this is a sort of unboxed saviour narrative, it is also a woman’s attempt to escape her own cloistered education, her own provincialism. From Country Girl:
One could read of the adventures of Irish nuns and priests who roamed the world to reach unfortunate heathens, desirous of baptism. There were pictures of nuns on rickshaws being ferried across the Han River in Hanyang and walking along a gangplank, with a skyline of Shanghai in the background. These were daughters of Erin, because ‘wherever a human need had declared itself, an Irish nun was there to meet it.’
(An Irish nun taught me algebra. This is categorically untrue.)
But there is also this:
She asked me in Irish if I was happy to be at school, and if I would shine and win a scholarship, and proudly she spoke the answer for me in Irish. There was a box for black babies in Africa, and as a surprise she allowed me to put a penny in the slot; the china skull of the black baby, with its braided hair, nodded a thank you.
The question of representation, of who gets to write what, has long been a subject of discussion among contemporary novelists. Are people who write strictly from their own backgrounds being unnecessarily cautious, or will a Nigerian schoolgirl protagonist written by a ninth-decade white Irish novelist be seen by the future as the equivalent of Olivier’s Othello? On the one hand, the arguments go, there is a restriction of imagination, and on the other, there is Jonathan Franzen considering whether to adopt an Iraqi war orphan to get inside its head. The whole conversation seems to take place in a slightly different universe from the one this book inhabits, perhaps because O’Brien is 88, and perhaps because she is different from other writers and always has been: she is missing an essential gene of propriety. Her truth-telling has been brave, and her books have worked to ease actual oppressions in her home country and elsewhere. But bravery was always beside the point. She would have done it anyway, because she’s one of the ones who says what she sees, and because her sight is usually so sharp and immediate, it’s doubly clear when a character’s life, for her, is happening around the corner.
When O’Brien decided not to be a nun, she walked into the house and told her mother she wanted peaches.
There was a huge can of cling peaches in a cupboard upstairs and only these sliding down my throat would satisfy my yearning. She asked if by any chance I had gone mad. I knew they could not be opened. They had been there for years, an heirloom, they were ornaments to be proud of like the good cups or the good glasses or the plaster of paris ladies. Anger pervaded like a rash and there and then I knew that I would not be a nun, rather I would be a film star and get a perm in my hair and save up for an accordion pleated skirt, get high heels, perfume and fur-backed gloves.
The right skirt for the season can cover you. The litany can be in the list. A can of cling peaches, properly labelled, may not seem like much of an inheritance. But for her it has been everything, more than gold, shared out among her books along with the loaves and the fishes. We have not, while they lasted, gone hungry.