Faber £20

Country Girl, By Edna O'Brien

The acute sensitivity that makes a great novelist can also result in a vivid but bristling, score-settling autobiography

I read Edna O'Brien's debut The Country Girls at 15, and it shocked me. Not for the sex – illicit Harold Robbins books had already sent the libidos of my classmates and I shrieking off into the distance – but for its perplexing possibilities: conniving female "friends"; exploitative sexual relations; adults who yearned for love like swooning teens. As a contraceptive, it was far more effective than stern lectures.

It is now 52 years since that novel was published. O'Brien's most recent book, 2011's short story collection Saints and Sinners, showed that she is still most comfortable dealing with the inner life of love and loss; her stories indelibly imbued with the wistful longing of those displaced from home and heart. My review of that book ended with the words "O'Brien is still a country girl", and now here is her memoir of that very title.

Her life story is entrancing. Born in 1930 in County Clare to an alcoholic father who frittered away his fortune and a mother she adored, she had a Catholic upbringing and attended convent school. She was always interested in words but her parents pushed her to study pharmacology. She began an affair with the separated writer Ernest Gébler, news of which was tittle-tattled to her family who tried forcibly to bring her home. Instead, O'Brien married and moved to London with Gébler, where she wrote her first novel in three weeks. The marriage failed. Life improved as her prolific writing brought success. She mixed with the great stars of the day.

O'Brien paints a fascinating picture of each era of her life. Her mother sounds idiosyncratic, smelling seat cushions for farts after visitors had called. The Archbishop McQuaid's moral proselytising provided a backdrop to her work and study in Dublin. McQuaid fulminated against modern culture; he peered through a telescope at courting couples and engineered a U-turn on the sale of tampons because they "aroused girls' passions". He would be instrumental in the banning of The Country Girls in 1960. Abortions were illegal, and a nurse was imprisoned for selling home terminations involving ergot and Jeyes Fluid.

O'Brien's social life in London and New York was glittering. Paul McCartney, Al Pacino, Jackie Onassis, Gore Vidal, Günter Grass, Jack Nicholson, Norman Mailer, Harold Wilson, R D Laing (with whom she took acid) and many others shimmer through these pages. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes, such as the one in which the actor Patrick Magee came to lunch and wouldn't leave. (O'Brien had to fabricate a social engagement, to which Magee declared he would also come; O'Brien had to literally run from him and hail a passing taxi.)

O'Brien has been criticised by some for concentrating on emotions rather than the exterior world, and portraying women as wistful beings living for love. This hyper-acuity to feelings is also evident in the number of people she castigates in her memoir. Sometimes there are valid reasons: the postmistress in County Clare telling O'Brien's father Edna should be kicked through the streets for bringing shame on the community; her father's brutal effort to haul her from Gébler.

At other times, O'Brien's pointed digs seem petty: she harumphs at a teacher who made an example of her for buying meat instead of chalk (even the dreamiest child must have wondered at the request); and excoriates relatives who visited each year bearing chocolates, ate heartily and didn't leave money. Her husband is made out to be monstrous for wanting custody, but on gaining custody herself, O'Brien sent her kids to boarding school, took them to see the X-rated Nicolas Roeg film Performance when they were young, and allowed cannabis to be smoked around them. Even the mutual friend who mediated a meeting between the estranged husband and wife is mocked for his broken teapot. O'Brien's love affairs were blighted, but she chose married man after married man, and never seemed to consider their wives and children.

O'Brien's language can be curiously old-fashioned: "sedulously" is used four times; people "dilate" on topics. Some may find her melodramatic: "Ever after, in fearful times, I had to hold onto something, anything, to defer annihilation." But those who have experienced early trauma will understand the survival instinct it precipitates. And acute sensitivity is so much more humane than its opposite, the numbness of soul exemplified by some popular culture.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine