I recall an argument with my brother some years ago. He had the temerity to tell me he didn’t like Edna O’Brien’s books. Indignant, I tore into him, taking us both back to 1974, the two of us in the back seat of our father’s yellow Honda Civic, cushions strategically stacked in the middle to stop us from hitting each other on the way to a campground near Loch Lomond. He didn’t seem to understand that Edna O’Brien was the first woman to commit to paper anything that made any sense to me. I loved her. He told me that if I planned to write a blog post about her, I should also add a “Dislike” button. The very thought!Edna O’Brien stands out for me as the first woman to lambast my country’s constraints on women, and in her own over-the-top life, she has flung the door wide open on what it means to be yourself. Live. In Person. Out loud. At 87, she still makes me want to stand up and cheer her on, even more so because there’s part of me that worries about how lonely she might be at the end of a day. Maybe that’s because of the poignancy of Kate’s mother waving goodbye.
“She was waving. In her brown dress, she looked sad, the farther I went, the sadder she looked. Like a sparrow in the snow, brown and anxious and lonesome.”I’m projecting, of course. Edna O’Brien has always been lonely, less so when she is writing, and as she pointed out before her 85th birthday and the release of The Little Red Chairs, “Old age just increases loneliness, because your options are less.”To be fair to my brother, he finds this kind of writing grim, too grim in a life that’s too short. And, that’s the point. Ireland was grim, and both he and I have at times been beneficiaries of its parochial, provincial grimness. Perhaps this is why he avoids being reminded of it. And perhaps this is why, having left it, I find myself missing it, the way we might return to a relationship that’s bad for us. When Patrick Freyne tells her how The Country Girls made him think of Ireland as a prison and that she eventually got out of it, she laughs and tells him – “Ah, I only got half out.”