‘Country Girl’s’ life on display in memoir

COUNTRY GIRL: A Memoir. By Edna O’Brien. Little Brown. 357 pages. $27.99.

When Irish literary star Edna O’Brien, now in her 80s, was a girl growing up in the wild west of Ireland, an inspector came to visit her school. Because she was then as she is now, spunky and theatrical, O’Brien was the child chosen to give a recitation.

When she had finished saying her piece, the inspector asked O’Brien if she took a great interest in Jesus. O’Brien continues, “I replied that I was disappointed that he had been so curt with his mother at the Feast of Cana, when, worried about the scarcity of wine, he said, ‘It is not my business or thine.’ ”

This is a small incident in a packed book, but the girl who can think and speak so freely about a domesticated Jesus — somebody’s son, a young man with bad manners — is exactly the woman who addresses us in her memoir, “Country Girl,” from the other end of the same life. Wherever she goes, O’Brien is irreversibly herself.

The County Clare of O’Brien’s rural childhood seems as remote as the Middle Ages. O’Brien’s young life was devoted to religious observances: “There were morning prayers, evening prayers, vespers, supplications, contritions, psalms, and versicles. There were exhortations about pride, vanity, filthy pleasures. ... The flames of Hell seemed as real as the turf burning in the fire.”

She grew up on her father’s family estate, Drewsboro. By the time she came along, the family no longer was rich, her father having sold off — or given away in fits of drunken generosity — much of the original land. The two constant loves of O’Brien’s childhood are her mother (“I used to promise to die at the very instant she did.”) and nature (“Birds swooped in random gusts, and butterflies ... moved in the higher strata like pieces of flying silk.”).

If hers is an autumnal attitude, it springs from a saucy, idiosyncratic mind that shows no signs of flagging power. O’Brien is gifted with a memory that puts her in touch with all the moments of her now-long life. The County Clare girl who tried to run away with a troupe of traveling players still is here, along with the convent girl who was drawn into “the wild heart of things” by a nun.

The chapters devoted to her childhood and youth, by far the most vivid in the book, are like prose poems. Plenty happens, all of it strung together by association and the rhyme of memory.

In the chapter titled “Dining Room,” for instance, O’Brien begins with an intricate visual description of the dining room. As a child, she called the dining room “Heaven” for its beauty and otherworldliness — a label that contrasts with the most insistent memories set there. In the first of these memories, an unwed neighbor girl who had complained of heartburn waits in the O’Briens’ dining room to tell her sweetheart that there’s “no cure” for her ailment. Her mother arranges a quick wedding.

The second memory also spotlights the vulnerability of women. O’Brien remembers her father, on a drunken binge, holding her and her mother hostage in the dining room, gun at the ready, until they get him more drink. Eventually, the Cistercian monks take him in for a drying-out.

Once she became famous, O’Brien would be branded a “bargain basement Molly Bloom” and a “Jezebel,” and her books were banned in Ireland. Her prose is scrupulous; she can be scathing on occasion, but “Country Girl” is not a score-settling book. The story of her life after she leaves home in County Clare — as a runaway bride, a doll-house wife, a taboo-smashing author and an It Girl of London’s Swinging Sixties and beyond — is studded with famous names.

She drops acid (and nearly loses her sanity) with R.D. Laing. Paul McCartney sings her sons to sleep. Richard Burton is a “bard brother.” Jackie O gives her a little velvet drawstring purse with a note that reads, “For a lock of your true love’s hair.”

Edna O’Brien is the remnant of one Ireland who survived to see a new one born, and then to see the newborn Ireland go from boom to bust overnight. Her memoir is full of lost, discarded, changed, devalued and reclaimed things.

In one final, moving return to Drewsboro, O’Brien takes an artist to photograph the ruin of her childhood home. Her mother is weirdly everywhere, from the coal scuttle where she hid bars of chocolate to “one half of an orange curtain, like a theater prop,” left at the window. O’Brien tastes the salty residue at the bottom of a holy water font and remembers her mother’s last days, when she told stories without shame. Here, truly is O’Brien’s own gift: the stories, told in sentences that cascade, without shame.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.