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.

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