Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Book of the Month: Girl with Green Eyes (Edna Obrien)

Girl With Green Eyes is the second novel in Edna O’Brien’s celebrated Country Girls trilogy. The first, The Country Girls, appeared in 1960, and announced the arrival of a fresh, exciting voice on the British literary scene. Girl With Green Eyes, originally published as The Lonely Girl, appeared two years later, affirmed that O’Brien was a major talent.

The Girl With Green Eyes traces the lives of Cathleen (who prefers to be called Cait) and her childhood friend, Baba, both young women in their early twenties, who have moved to Dublin from the Irish countryside, and are, in their own ways, trying to get as much away as possible from their sheltered, puritanical Roman Catholic upbringing: they drink, dress up, spend evenings, whenever they can afford, in the dance halls; and, if they have not yet had had affairs in Dublin, it is not because of want of trying. The period is not clearly defined but is most probably the ‘50s. Baba, the daughter of a veterinarian, is the more adventurous of the two, and manages to cadge invitations to exhibitions and do’s. Tall, slim, and not exactly shy, Baba is not short of admirers. Cait, plump and ample-bosomed, is bashful and gauche, and follows Baba to the parties, loitering in the background, wanting to commingle with young men, but not quite having the courage to strike up conversations. However it is Cait who manages to becharm Eugene Gaillard, a filmmaker who is several years older than she, whom she meets at an exhibition. Eugene is non-Catholic and estranged from his American wife who has moved back to the States with their daughter. When an interfering busybody wises up Cait’s alcoholic father about what his daughter has been getting up to, via an anonymous poisonous letter, the father, accompanied by fellow drunkards from the village, arrives at Eugene’s house where Cait has taken to spending nights (although the relationship is not consummated). Bad girl Baba, in the meanwhile, manages to get a bun in the oven by sleeping with a married man. Cait sees Eugene as a great lover, while he sees her for what she is: an immature, insecure and confused girl-woman, who is rebelling against but is also a victim of her rigid upbringing. It is a fundamentally unbalanced romance, which is doomed to fail. When Cait leaves Eugene after one of their contretemps (which are becoming frequent), leaving behind a note that she is leaving for England together with Baba (who has—shock! horror!—had an abortion), inwardly hoping that he would come for her, she—and only she—is in for a surprise and heartache. The novel ends on an elegiac note for the lost love, but also with the hint that the young narrator has matured.

Given Edna Obrien’s rigid, Catholic upbringing—her family apparently was vehemently against anything to do with literature and O’Brien described her village community as ‘enclosed, fervid, and bigoted’—, the question has been posed repeatedly whether the trilogy is autobiographical. O’Brien has never answered this question directly. In an interview she replied, rather tartly, that the novels were autobiographical insofar she was born and bred in West Ireland, educated at a Convent, and was full of romantic yearnings, coupled with a sense of outrage.

Girl with Green Eyes, together with the other two novels in the trilogy, is rightly regarded as a work of high feminism. Its bold (for the times) themes—young women, raised conventionally, rebelling against their upbringing and exploring their sexuality—coupled with the irreverence displayed towards the traditionally strict, Irish religious customs meant this seminal work was banned in her native Ireland. In some ways, The Girl with green Eyes, indeed the trilogy, is a forerunner of the motif of O’Brien’s later works: women who are victims of harsh, almost cruel, upbringing, and who get entangled with men who let them down in a variety of ways. The difference here is that the young heroine of The Girl with Green Eyes is not resentful despite the rather callous and patronizing ways in which she is treated by her lover and family respectively, perhaps because she has the optimism of youth, or because the disappointments and reversals of life haven’t yet become wearisome and bred cynicism. This innocence and naivety is also conveyed very effectively by the unselfconscious, casual, almost bawdy tone of the narration. The ambiance of the novel is affectionate (without being affected) and effusive (without, at any time, being kitschy), in stark contrast to the rather isolated and dreary existence of Cait and Baba. It is impossible not to warm up to the two leprechauns. You may even shed a tear or two when young Cait suffers the inevitable heartache.

In Writers at Work Edna O’brien wrote: "They used to ban my books, but now when I go there, people are courteous to my face, though rather slanderous behind my back. Then again, Ireland has changed. There are a lot of young people who are irreligious, or less religious. Ironically, they wouldn't be interested in my early books - they would think them gauche." Nothing could be further from truth. The warm, affectionate glow of this delightful novel will continue to enchant readers for decades.