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2016 Classics Challenge: The Country Girls

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Amy Davies - May 31st, 2016

9780752881164 The Country GirlsThe Country Girls caused outrage when it was first published in 1960: reviewers were indignant and chauvinistic; one parish priest publicly burned copies of the novel; and the censorship committee in Ireland quickly banned the book from sale. Now recognised as a modern classic, it is celebrated for its revolutionary and honest discussion of love, sex and womanhood.

 

By Jennifer Kerslake

We read a lot of contemporary fiction here in the W&N office. Obviously there’s everything we publish, then the weekly influx of submissions, books that have been nominated for prizes, books that are selling well, books that friends have recommended… But we think it’s a shame that we’re often so busy reading the latest thing that we forget about those exciting stories of yesteryear. So, in the spirit of literary revival, we’re launching a feature dedicated to our backlist. Each month one of us will delve into our archives for a book – old favourite, timeless classic or undiscovered treasure – to read and review.

As the newest member of the W&N team, it was only natural that I should want to go first. For me, the reprint shelves are still a constant source of delight – so much so that foraging for paperbacks has become an essential Friday afternoon activity. Among my favourite finds is The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien. A coming-of-age tale about two girls – Caithleen and Baba – who flee the convent to find life and love in the big city, this novel was deemed so sexually explicit that it was banned when first published in 1960.

Mr Gentleman’s nudity, although no doubt shocking to convent girls who were ‘requested to dress and undress under the shelter of their dressing-gowns’ wasn’t the only cause for scandal. O’Brien paints such a bleak and oppressive picture of the Catholic community in her native Ireland that it’s no wonder people were offended. Caithleen’s dada is a ‘red and fierce and angry’ drunk who no one dares to stand against. Baba’s mother is ‘cold’ and ‘fast’ – a beautifully pale mannequin with lacquered nails who spends her nights perched on a stool in the Greyhound Hotel. And life in the convent is ‘worse than the army’ as the unforgiving nuns insist on exercise drills at dawn. But there are compassionate characters too, not least Hickey, the big and beaming farm hand who is so devoted to Caithleen that he works without pay. Green teeth and a clown-like walk mean that Hickey may be flawed – but he is also loved. And therein lies the magic of an Edna O’Brien novel. All the characters are flawed or wounded or broken. They are fighting for power in an unjust world where survival is in no way guaranteed.

Written in spare and lyrical prose, and with the first person immediacy of a diary, this is the story of Caithleen as she negotiates her way from girl to woman. The journey is not a smooth one. Caithleen may crave wild glamour and mad romance in the city, but she never fully grasps the implications of her adult desires. Indeed, she readily – even willfully – conforms to Mr Gentleman’s innocent ideal: ‘At first I was indignant at his calling me a funny little girl, and then I found his words sweet’. In the throes of first love, but still clinging onto naivety, Caithleen shows that she isn’t quite ready to leave her childhood behind.

Although raw and emotional and full of yearning, this is also a very funny novel. So often faced with the choice between laughter and tears, Caithleen – and by extension, the reader – are encouraged to laugh. Take the scene where the girls contend with another gruesome convent meal by secreting meat into envelopes tucked under their jumpers. As the girls lob their foul parcels into the lake, one notes with not-quite-faux gravity: ‘I have done the deed: didst thou hear the noise?’. And from Shakespearian bathos to farce, O’Brien had me in hysterics with the image of Caithleen trussed up in her obese landlady’s lilac nightdress. Pleated and smelling of camphor balls, the gown is not quite the sexy slip Caithleen had envisaged for her first weekend away with Mr Gentleman!

In many ways an elegy to innocence, Caithleen is eventually betrayed. I won’t tell you how but the scene is sad and brutal and true. As romanticism gives way to realism, I remembered a quote from earlier on: ‘It was nice to lie there watching the stars, waiting for them to fade or to go out, or to flare up into one brilliant firework. Waiting for something to happen in the deathly, unhappy silence.’ Betrayed yes, but at least Caithleen is on her way.

The Country Girls competition has now closed.

 

For more information on the 2016 Classics Challenge, head over to the Pretty Books blog and follow @theprettybooks on Twitter.

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