I can't remember when or how I first heard about Edna O'Brien: the context eludes me. But I've just finished (as I understand it) her major work of fiction, The Country Girls, and it's one tough book.
I mean that in the sense that the content is rough and raw: this is a coming of age story told Irish-style. There's abuse and drinking, convents and loneliness. But there are moments of clarity, too, of wonder and beauty, of a restlessness reserved for youth.
Parts of The Country Girls have not aged well: the sexuality, in particular, seems dated and distant. (O'Brien published the book in 1960). There's a quaint quality to the intimacy with which I could not relate, and which reminded me at times of the film from a few years back, An Education.
But there were other sections of the book that captured for me what it is to be young: to live through fleeting moments of awakening and discovery. Those moments always, though, contrast in The Country Girls with others: those of despair and frustration, of knowing just enough to understand how little, in fact, you know.
It seems odd that I took on The Country Girls just after finishing Moravia's Agostino, another book about childhood. Both uncover the violence inherent in growing up, the pain of passing from one phase of our lives to the next. But both, too, get at moments of levity, of the delight of youth.
I'll leave the last word for O'Brien, whose characters encounter in adulthood an unwillingness to accept those moments of delight:
"It was always like that with Mr. Gentleman. He slipped away, just when things were perfect, as if he couldn't endure perfection."