Lauded by Philip Roth as “the most gifted woman now writing in English,” Edna O’Brien is the author of eleven novels, as well as numerous collections of stories, plays, nonfiction, and biography. She burst onto the literary scene in the early 1960s with her novel The Country Girls. Because of the sexual content of the story, The Country Girls, and six of the author’s subsequent works, were banned in Ireland. Her parents, who were deeply ashamed of the book, were vilified by their neighbors and O’Brien became a national target for resentment. However, The Country Girls met with immense success in other parts of the world, propelling O’Brien into a realm of literary notoriety and success.
O’Brien was born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, in the west of Ireland, and as a young woman, she worked as a pharmacist and spent time in both London and Dublin. But after the publication of The Country Girls Trilogy, she left Ireland for good and settled in London. When asked why so many writers leave Ireland, she responded, “I left Ireland because my first books were banned, I was frightened; and the climate of censorship was strangulating. But although you physically leave the country, mentally you bring it with you.”
Much of O’Brien’s work is autobiographical: “A writer’s journey is a graph,” O’Brien told the Atlantic Monthly, “I started with things I knew—convent girls, family, etc.—but as I became a little more confident I applied myself to venturing into the outer world and, I hope, integrating it with a corresponding inner world.” O’Brien’s later work deals with a wider range of social and political issues. In Wild Decembers (2000), O’Brien wrote about a conflict over land ownership and its ramifications on a family and a community. This book followed House of Splendid Isolation (1994), set amidst IRA struggles, and Down by the River (1997), concerning Ireland’s famous “X” trial and the issue of abortion. Although O’Brien writes about difficult aspects of an often repressive society, the beauty, humor, and melancholy of her native country still resound in her writing.
O’Brien is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. Her work appears regularly in The New Yorker. She has lived in London for the past forty years.
Excerpt from Wild Decembers (2000)Josephine’s hair salon remains open all the year, and she prides herself on the fact that she does not just pander to summer visitors who breeze in, sit outside the hotel eating their toasted sandwiches and taking photographs.
The salon is half a terraced cottage with a concrete back yard for a coal shed and in the front window a placard of a brunette and a sample folder of nylon hairs, little switches, ranging in colour from ash blond to jet black. In that small linoleumed room with its smell of ammonia and hairspray everything gets told. Josephine is the first to know who is pregnant or who has miscarried, the first to ferret out secrets too terrible to tell. Lovers are her speciality, clandestine lovers meeting in their cars. Of Josephine, people say, “She would go down in your stomach for news.” Yet they confide in her because they cannot help it. Something in her invites it, her motherly way, her soft stout arms with the healthy growth of black under the arm pits, and her thin lips permanently open, as if she is drinking her listeners in. Her particular forte is that she always agrees, never contradicts, always says, “That’s right . . . That’s right,” regardless of what she is thinking inside.
“I love when it’s just us,” Lady Harkness says. She says it faithfully each week as she rubs her hands to show off her bracelets, the envy of all, even Josephine, who jokes and says, “You’ll leave me them in your will.” Sometimes she even gives them a little kiss. Lady Harkness comes only on Thursdays to avoid the Bolshies, and usually there is that nice girl Fiona, who has just got engaged and has wedding jitters.
As Josephine looks up and sees Breege peering through the window, she winks and says, “I’d love to get my hands on that head of hair.”
Lady Harkness, although set and ready to bake under the drier, is reluctant to go because of the wonderful tips Josephine is relating about weddings. They are from a special issue of a magazine for brides — Bridal Clothing, the Bridal Beauty Box, the Bridal Secrets, and the Bridal Wedding Stationery. She reads excitedly: “The latest trend is not to insist on a June wedding at all, as hotels, not to mention friends, will be already chock-a-block. Move from the traditional June date and the traditional white dress to something more eccentric. Become a trend-setter.”
“No white dress,” Lady Harkness says aghast, and shrieks as Josephine spells out the alternative: “ice-blue satin hot pants.”
Selected WorkWild Decembers (2000)James Joyce (1999)Down by the River (1997)House of Splendid Isolation (1994)Time and Tide (1992)Lantern Slides (1990)The High Road (1988)The Lonely Girl (1988)Girls in Their Married Bliss (1987)The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue (1986)A Fanatic Heart (1984)James and Nora (1981)Virginia (1981)Some Irish Loving (1979)I Hardly Knew You (1978)Arabian Days (1977)Mother Ireland (1976)Girls with the Green Eyes (1964)
LinksIreland Now: The Literature of Edna O’BrienSalon.com LitChat with Edna O’Brien (1999)Books & Writers bio of Edna O’BrienNew York Times book review of Down by the River