Enthralled by The Great Edna O’Brien

On Tuesday evening I drove the thirty odd kilometres to the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire South Dublin, to see and hear Edna O’Brien interviewed by Sinead Gleeson.
It was my mother who first introduced me to the books of Edna O’Brien. Trust my mother to like something banned and risqué I thought, and promptly forgot about it. However, after my mother died, I was in the library one day and happened to see a range of O’Brien’s books on the shelf. Out of a feeling of nostalgia and remembrance to my mother, I borrowed ‘The Country Girls.’

I read ‘The Country Girls’ and in spite of my expectations I thoroughly enjoyed it. However it was her two books of short stories and her memoir ‘Country Girl,’ which I found to be just the most beautiful prose I had ever read. Her attention to detail astonished me, as well as her lyricism. Every word seemed to sing on the page. I was hooked.

To have the opportunity to hear her speak was one I was not going to miss. In her 85th year, she has just completed another novel called ‘The Little Red Chairs’ – I bought a signed copy at the event (she signed the books beforehand.) I will be reading that for pure pleasure over Christmas.

From the moment she began to speak, I was completely captivated and hung on her every word. She still retains a soft Irish brogue and has a beautiful voice. She talked about so many wonderful things, I just so wish I could have recorded it. She discussed the power of literature but said that the words come above and beyond anything else when she writes. She talked about how she adores stimulating conversation, and how, when she recently met the writer Teju Cole (who she admires) and they were having a very stimulating conversation, and after three hours he said: ‘I think I’ll have a gin!’ What I gleaned from this story was that O’Brien was only warming up and could have gone on talking for hours.

She is incredibly smart, witty, and not afraid of sharing her honest opinions on many subjects. What surprised me is how hurt she still feels about the criticism she received from Ireland, not just for ‘The Country Girls,’ which she said was over hyped and ridiculous, but for other books she wrote. She still carries that pain and that made me sad. I wanted to say, ‘forget the begrudgers Edna, the majority of us adore you!’ She has of course been honoured in Ireland, and you could also tell that means a lot to her.

She talked about her love of Joyce and how she agrees with Samuel Beckett, who said of Joyce: ‘He makes the words do the hard work.”
Her love of Joyce is abundantly clear. She credits him with a lot of her inspiration.

She talked of many interesting people she has known, with never a malicious word said about anyone. There was not a sound in the auditorium while she spoke. She received a well-deserved standing ovation. I could have listened to her all night. She is an inspiration and Ireland should be very proud of her.

Review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. Book Club Choice for October

Perhaps you would rather see the film before reading the book? To me, the book will always come first and I don’t mind knowing the story when I go to see the film.  I will still enjoy the film.  Plus the film is usually not a 100% accurate portrayal of the original story, and I prefer the book every time.  Whatever way around you do it – book then film, film then book or just film or book, I would love to hear your thoughts on Brooklyn.  Here are mine, after a short summing up of the story –

Eilis Lacey has lived in the village of Enniscorthy in County Wexford her whole life. She lives with her widowed mother and her older sister Rose. Her sister Rose is the breadwinner for the family, and there are few prospects for girls in Ireland in the 1950s to have a career. Getting married and having a family are usually the way forward. However Rose has other plans for Eilis, and she, her mother and a well-meaning priest, Father Flood work on a plan for Eilis’s life. Eilis soon discovers that a job and a new life in Brooklyn await. She accepts this with equanimity, although we are to discover that the women in this family never tell each other how they are really feeling and this is the tragedy of this story.

Eilis doesn’t want to go to America, but feels she has no choice but to accept the path laid out for her, Tóibín writes; “She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”

In Brooklyn Eilis is given lodgings with a Mrs Kehoe, along with some other female lodgers. She works on the shop floor of a department store called Bartocci’s. Following an initial period of numbness, followed by a severe case of being homesick, once she realizes the reality of her situation, Eilis settles down to life in Brooklyn and begins studying to become a bookkeeper. After a few months she meets an American called Tony at the local Parish dance organized by Father Flood. Love blossoms and it seems she may have found her happy ever after. However, when she is called back to Ireland following a family tragedy, she must make the ultimate choice between love and duty.

I was a fan of  Colm Tóibín before reading this book, but now I would say I am a super fan! The story will definitely go into my list of favourite reads of all time.  Tóibín portrays the dynamics of family life in Ireland in the fifties with such accuracy and subtlety, that I could almost feel myself there. Eilis respects her mother and sister and behaves accordingly. At times I wanted to scream with frustration that she wouldn’t tell them how she was feeling, and yet I understood how and why she couldn’t. Was the choice she made in America a type of revenge? I don’t believe so. I think it was sincerely done with no thought that she wouldn’t return.

Did she make the right choice? I think it was a choice between the head and the heart, and she made the ultimate sacrifice and went with duty and the head. For me she is a heroine for that reason.

What I loved about this book was how the author shows how place plays such a significant part in our lives. We can live in one place and when we are away from it for a while, it seems like a dream. Eilis states that Tony seems; “part of a dream from which she had woken.” Yet she is emotionally aware that if she returned to Brooklyn, then it would be her life in Enniscorthy that would seem like a dream. It is also a clever working of the plot that it is the nasty Miss Kelly who she worked for in Enniscorthy, before departing for Brooklyn, who discovers her secret and forces her decision.

I found it such a poignant book and found myself crying at several points during the story, sometimes without even realizing there were tears sliding down my face. In particular the author’s description of how it feels to be homesick: “All this came to her like a terrible weight and she felt for a second that she was going to cry. It was as though an ache in her chest was trying to force tears down her cheeks despite her enormous effort to keep them back. She did not give in to whatever it was. She kept thinking, attempting to work out what was causing this new feeling that was like despondency, that was like how she felt when her father died and she watched them closing the coffin, the feeling that he would never see the world again and she would never be able to talk to him again.”

It reminded me, I suppose, of my own journeys back and forth from Zambia to Ireland as a child and teenager. Thank goodness I never had to face a choice like she did. I don’t think I would have had the strength.

Book Club Choice for October

October’s Book Club Choice is Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I specifically chose this  book for two reasons.  Firstly, the film version starring Saoirse Ronan is out on 6th November, and secondly, someone recently reminded me what a fantastic novel it is, and I wanted to read it before the film came out.

Described by the New Statesman as ‘tremendously moving and powerful,’ this is a book not to be missed.    The story centres around Eilis Lacey, who moves to Brooklyn from Ireland to find work.  Desperately  homesick and miserable, she struggles to fit in.  Then one night at a dance, she meets someone and everything changes.  But when tragic news calls her back to Ireland, she finds herself facing a terrible choice: between love and happiness in the land where she belongs and the promises she must keep on the far side of the ocean.

Brooklyn is considered one of Toibin’s finest works and is a must read!  I can’t wait to hear your views.  Read it BEFORE you see the film! So here’s your link to get you started and I hope you enjoy it.

Brooklyn    Product Details