The Country Girls, 1960
The Lonely Girl, 1962 (also known as Girl with Green Eyes, 1964)
Girls in Their Married Bliss, 1964
August Is a Wicked Month, 1965
Casualties of Peace, 1966
A Pagan Place, 1970
Zee and Co., 1971
Johnny I Hardly Knew You, 1977 (pb. in U.S. as I Hardly Knew You, 1978)
The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue, 1986 (includes The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, and Girls in Their Married Bliss)
The High Road, 1988
Time and Tide, 1992
An Edna O’Brien Reader, 1984
House of Splendid Isolation, 1994
Down by the River, 1996
Wild Decembers, 1999
In the Forest, 2001
The Love Object, 1968
A Scandalous Woman, and Other Stories, 1974
Mrs. Reinhardt, 1978 (pb. in U.S. as A Rose in the Heart, 1979)
A Fanatic Heart, 1984
Lantern Slides, 1990
A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers, pr. 1962
A Pagan Place, pr. 1972 (adaptation of her novel)
The Gathering, pr. 1974
Virginia, pr. 1980
Flesh and Blood, pr. 1985
Girl with Green Eyes, 1964 (adaptation of her novel)
Time Lost and Time Remembered, 1966 (with Desmond Davis; also known as I Was Happy Here)
Three into Two Won’t Go, 1969
X, Y, and Zee, 1971 (also known as Zee and Company; adaptation of her novel)
The Wedding Dress, 1963
Nothing’s Ever Over, 1968
Mrs. Reinhardt, 1981 (adaptation of her short story)
The Country Girls, 1983 (adaptation of her novel)
On the Bone, 1989
Mother Ireland, 1976
Arabian Days, 1977
James and Nora: A Portrait of Joyce’s Marriage, 1981
Vanishing Ireland, 1986
James Joyce, 1999
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
The Dazzle, 1981
A Christmas Treat, 1982
The Expedition, 1982
The Rescue, 1983
Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories, 1986
Some Irish Loving, 1979
Josephine Edna O’Brien is a prolific Irish writer in several genres. In general, she is more esteemed in the United States than she is in the British Isles, where the “Irishness” of her work is less of a novelty. O’Brien is either much admired as an archetypal fighting Irishwoman or much scorned for her melodramatic posturing; responses are rarely lukewarm. Writing almost always from a female point of view, she is a splendid illustrator of the Irish scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It is when her women grow up and join the cosmopolitan world of London and the jet set’s Europe, with its glitz and promiscuity, that some readers find her work less satisfactory.
O’Brien was born on a farm in County Clare, in the western region of Ireland, on December 15, 1930 (some sources say 1932). Her strict Roman Catholic upbringing in a household dominated by a tough, hard-drinking, improvident father and a passive-aggressive, long-suffering mother is central to all of her best work. The backdrop of this “pagan place” and the people in it, to whom she seems bound even as an adult, is best shown in her Country Girls trilogy and in the autobiographical Mother Ireland. From the oppressively close-knit village community of Scarriff, O’Brien first broke away to become a boarder at the Convent of Mercy, Lough Rea, County Galway. From there she moved to Dublin. In the capital she met and in 1954 married the established novelist Ernest Gebler, with whom she had two sons. The marriage was dissolved in 1964 after a bitter custody battle.
O’Brien’s relationship with Gebler was important in getting her started as a writer. They have disagreed in print about just what, or how great, his contribution to her early novels was, but the fact is that in England, to which they had moved, O’Brien began publishing at a furious pace, a pace which she maintained for almost twenty years. The Country Girls brilliantly introduced readers to the two female figures who would subsequently represent O’Brien’s concern for love and connection among people in hostile family, religious, and social environments. Cait is the first-person narrator and a sensitive romantic; Baba is her alter ego and a volatile scapegrace. The Lonely Girl continues their saga two years later. Cait is again the narrator. She describes her involvement with the cultivated snob Eugene Gaillard (whose initials, it has been noted, are those of O’Brien’s former husband) and her subsequent sailing alone to England. Girls in Their Married Bliss addresses the two women’s problems with the stresses of married life.
This trilogy would indeed present a bleak picture of a woman’s lot in a world of parental, male, and Church repression were it not for O’Brien’s increasingly successful experiments with technique and style; in these she follows James Joyce, whom she greatly admires. Her saving grace is an ironic humor. O’Brien supplies tangible, sensory details and variations in perspective. Her prodigious recall is a feature remarked upon by her critics, including Philip Roth, who wrote a preface to her short-story anthology A Fanatic Heart. In her early trilogy are present in microcosm all the themes of her subsequent work: loneliness, the longing for escape and adventure (often sexual), the repression of the Church, strangling family ties (the brutal father, the martyrlike mother), and the courageous hope with which life must be lived.
Night is O’Brien’s most Joycean novel and perhaps her best work. Here the whining Cait figure is abandoned, and the Baba figure (Mary) is given full rein. Beginning with the first paragraph, the unconciliatory tone of her monologue is established. “I am a woman,” Mary affirms, and she proceeds to weave together the threads of her (and O’Brien’s) story. An outsider, merely house-sitting in London, she reviews her pilgrimage to “the higher shores of love.” The details are familiar: the vicious father, the ignorant peasantry, the cold husband, the love for children (particularly maternal love for a son).
This resolving of the divided self in O’Brien’s work does not, however, continue in an uninterrupted line. I Hardly Knew You features a predatory female figure, in prison for murder and isolated from all productive interaction with society. There are flirtations with incest and an explicit lesbian encounter. O’Brien’s search for a resolution of the quest for love is evidently an uneasy one. After about ten years during which she wrote no long fiction, she kills off Cait (now Kate) by suicide in the epilogue to The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue. In The High Road, however, Kate reappears. In late middle age now, she is as much a hopeless dreamer as ever, looking in all the wrong places and predictably finding all the wrong people, never to become a part of a genuine, lasting, loving relationship.
With the 1990’s came more serious novels. In House of Splendid Isolation, O’Brien returns to strictly Irish themes, this time dealing with the politics of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army. An aging and reclusive Irishwoman in the Republic finds herself harboring a terrorist and confronting the issues that have produced such spiraling tragedy. In Down by the River, a young Irish girl is raped by her father and further abused by her society. Wild Decembers is a romance set in the wild Irish mountains and charged with conflicts between tradition and progress, gossip and truth, vengeance and forgiveness. In the Forest, which takes place in and around a forest in western Ireland, re-creates the circumstances of a multiple murder committed by a tormented young man.
Divided critical reaction toward O’Brien’s work seems to rise from her own ambivalence about her characters, ambivalence which may stem from her own uncertainties about herself and her past. Some readers find her later work, especially when it is set outside Ireland, too predictably pessimistic. Given the immature choices of her central characters, such readers assert, happy relationships seem to be impossible for women in her fiction. On the other hand, her unsympathetic narrators are acclaimed by others as perceptive, searing analyses of a very real, all too common, human condition. In the middle, perhaps, are the majority of O’Brien readers who enjoy most her fresh, lively, and detailed depiction of adolescent life in Ireland in the 1950’s, when separation from parents and society was neither possible nor desirable.