Book Review: The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien – an Irish classic perfect for a library reading challenge

Our public library is running a winter reading programme called Turn Up the Heat. There’s a kind of bingo card of different reading challenges, and every time you log a completed challenge, you go into the draw for prizes. So much fun! One of the challenges is to read a book published in the year you were born. In spite of thinking there’d be hardly anything published in a year so long ago, I quickly found three books to choose from I was happy to read.

The Adventures of the Christmas Pudding, a Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, is a book I’ve read before, probably more than once, and I have a copy on my bookshelf. But I felt this one lacked the element of challenge I was quite looking for. Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is one of the books in Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ series of twelve books. I’ve been meaning to reread them for a while now, but as the one from my birth year is number five in the series, I demurred. Then I happened upon The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien. A book I’ve always meant to read, and not too long. Perfect.

I was quickly caught up in the story of fourteen-year-old Caithleen, who is worried about the return of her father, missing for days if not weeks with the money he was meant to use on paying bills. We’re on a farm near Limerick, and the father has a terrible temper, and a tendency to go on benders, returning home to beat his wife. This sounds kind of morose, but in spite of the dreariness of life in a small village, Caithleen is a charming narrator. She’s naive, but friendly and kindly. She has a terrible hoodlum of a friend, Baba (Bridget), and the two get up to all sorts.

Cait is romantic in nature, and in spite of a family tragedy, dreams her way through life, yearning after Mr Gentleman, the name given to the Frenchman with an unpronounceable name who lives in a nearby manor house with his wife. Baba just wants to have fun, sometimes at Cait’s expense. Baba is dark, dainty and pretty, which makes tall, red-headed and eventually ‘Rubenesque’ Cait feel inferior. They have a challenging relationship, but kind-hearted Cait remains loyal through all Baba puts her through.

The book is divided roughly into three parts, the first with the girls still at the local school, and Cait’s family situation disintegrates to the point where Baba’s parents feel obliged to take her in. The second has them at a convent school, where Cait shines academically, and Baba gets them into trouble. In the third section, the two escape to Dublin where Baba is sent to a secretarial college and Cait to work in a grocery store. They live for their nights out on the town, Baba urging Cait on to have fun, while Cait writes letters home to Mr Gentleman.

Edna O’Brien writes in a way that is both amusing and entertaining, but also puts you in the time and place. 1960s Dublin is full of all kinds of traps for young girls; the sexism is horrific, so you can’t help admiring Baba’s mother who is worldly wise and does what she feels like, even hiding the chicken dinner from her husband in her wardrobe so there is more for her. It’s a bit like an Irish Nancy Mitford novel – loads of fun, mad characters and brilliant social commentary, but lurking beneath it all a layer of darkness. You can’t help feeling that with the 1960s ready to get going, there will be more choice for young Irish women, but you’ll have to read the next book (The Lonely Girl) to find out.

I’ve always enjoyed classic literature – it’s such a dilemma whether to read the next hot new release or a book that’s remained in print for decades or more. So it’s good to mix them up. I’ve enjoyed a lot of more recent Irish literature, so I appreciated The Country Girls as a book that made an impact at its publication, inspiring the generations of Irish writers, particularly female ones, that followed. Apparently The Country Girls trilogy was so shocking at the time, it was banned and even denounced from the pulpit. Another challenge in Turn Up the Heat is to read a biography – I might be tempted to give O’Brien’s, A Country Girl, a try.

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I’ve had this novel on my bookcase for ages, and I wonder if I delayed picking it up because of my intense emotional response to Miller’s earlier work: Song of Achilles. Was I afraid Circe would similarly reduce me to a quivering wreck? Well, Circe is another tale drawn from Homer, describing the antics of the gods of Ancient Greece, their whims and jealousies, their interactions with mortals, including heroes such as Jason and Odysseus.

As it happens I needn’t have worried as this is such a rollicking story, taking the reader through all the old legends, beginning from when the Titans lost their rule over the world to the Olympian gods under Zeus. I remember learning a lot of the stories at school, so Circe was a welcome refresher.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, one of the few remaining Titans, the sun god who rides his chariot across the sky each day. Like many of the gods, he’s vain and petulant, put out that the daughter he has sired with a water nymph is so unappealing. When Circe learns to cast spells, driven by love for a mortal, her dark magic ignites the fury of Zeus and she is banished to the island of Aiaia forever.

Circe is an interesting character with her sympathy for mortals, their daily struggles to survive, their pain and desperation to please the gods who taunt them. She is also a reluctant goddess, scorned by her family and left so much to her own devices that she discovers witchcraft. This comes in handy when she needs to defend herself against pirates who seek to ravish or rob her, turning them into pigs – including the crew of Odysseus, before she meets the great man himself, seeking shelter to mend his ship before returning home to Ithaca.

Odysseus delays his return to spend time with Circe, telling her about the Trojan War, and other adventures. But Circe has her own stories – her visit to her sister on Crete and the birth of the Minotaur; the story of Daedalus, who befriends her, and his son Icharus; of Jason and Medea. There’s the six-headed monster Scylla, created out of Circe’s own jealousy, who snatches sailors from their ships. The winged messenger of the gods, Hermes, drops in full of gossip, while Athena, goddess of war, will offer Circe a terrible choice.

We follow Circe’s story from her birth – deities grow up fast in many ways but their lives are as long as eternity. It will take Circe almost as long to acquire the wisdom to find a way to be the person she is meant to be. In the meantime she develops her craft, becoming a brave and determined problem solver, figuring out how to get around some tricky situations. This makes the book very hard to put down and you have the constant impression that like the twelve labours of Hercules, there’s always a new challenge just around the corner.

Circe is a terrific read, and as I finished the book I was reminded of the other reason I may have put off opening it – that it may be a while before Madeline Miller gives us another novel inspired by tales from the ancient world. I hope she’s got something up her sleeve as she’s such a good storyteller. Circe gets a five out of five from me.

Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naivet̩ of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold РLeo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother Рand events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.

Review: The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

A few authors lately have been dipping into the ancient classics for inspiration (Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls; Madeline Miller’s Circe and earlier Song of Achilles). Now we have The Porpoise, which is a reimagining of the story of Apollonius of Tyre, which inspired Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. All these newbies are brilliant novels, full of tragedy, adventure, passion and twists of fate.

With Apollonius/Pericles, a young prince must lead the life of a fugitive when he discovers the incestuous relationship between a king (Antiochus) and his daughter. Lots of adventure follows, with storms at sea, shipwrecks, plagues, mutinies, and amid all that, our hero marries a princess and gains a daughter, only to lose them both. The evil king gets his comeuppance, and fortune, whether driven by divine intervention or luck, eventually shines on Pericles and he is reunited with his family.

The trick with these stories is to make them accessible to the modern reader. Haddon does this by starting us off in modern times and using a lively present tense narration. Philippe is overcome with grief when his wife dies in a plane crash, his daughter Angelica born moments later. He becomes obsessed with Angelica and as she matures he keeps her isolated, tutored at home, sequestered in his English mansion, Antioch.

Enter Darius, the son of an art dealer. Seeing his chance to make some easy money, Darius drives to Antioch hoping to interest Philippe in some collectibles he’d shown interest in. Here he meets Angelica whom he decides needs rescuing. Darius is set upon by Philippe’s thug, just getting away when chance hands him help in the form of a friend with a yacht. Darius and crew sail away from danger, but also into the past where Darius becomes Pericles and the adventures really begin.

Woven through the narrative are updates with the modern-day Angelica/Philippe situation as well as glimpses of Shakespeare and his fellow Pericles author, George Wilkins, whose main source of income was running prostitutes. Women are frequently badly treated in the book, pawns in the ambitions of powerful men, but the gods take note and justice prevails. There are strong female characters too: Helena, the captain of the Porpoise which rescues Darius; Chloe, Pericles’s wife is feisty and headstrong, Marina, their daughter, a determined survivor – to name but three.

Pericles has all the hallmarks of a hero – both the son of a king, as well as an adventurer who can fight and live off his wits. He makes mistakes and pays the price, being brought down to a life of hardship and near death more than once before fortune can shine upon him again. All of this really puts the reader through the mill with plenty of ‘Oh, no!’ moments.

The Porpoise might have been a plot-driven adventure story, and at that there is plenty to keep you turning the pages, but Haddon’s prose is lyrical and elegant. He creates wonderful visual pictures that make you feel you are there on the ship at Pericles’s side, on the barge that will take Wilkins to hell, in ancient palace gardens, or sequestered temples. There’s plenty to mull over plus a few literary references you might want to look up from time to time. Which all adds to the richness of the read. I loved it – five out of five from me.