What a joy it was to read Edna O’Brien’s The Lonely Girl again, reprinted in a new edition almost thirty years after its first publication.
The Lonely Girl is the second book in "The Country Girls" trilogy. The three novels: The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, and Girls in Their Married Bliss, trace the coming of age of two Irish girls from childhood friendship through sexual awakening to marriage and middle age. The author describes the first novel in the trilogy as “a simple tale of two girls who were trying to burst out of their gym frocks and their convent…and make it in the big city.” It is not necessary to have read the first book, or to go on and read the last, in order to enjoy and appreciate The Lonely Girl, although such is the power of Edna O’Brien’s storytelling, that most readers will go on to read all three no matter in whatever order.
By the time The Lonely Girl begins, the girls are now young women of twenty-one living in a boarding house in Dublin. Kate, the narrator and the awkward, lonely girl of the title, is searching for true love. A true innocent, Kate’s ideal man is the “strange, complex, romantic” type like Jay Gatsby and other characters in novels. Her friend Baba, Kate’s opposite in terms of temperament and philosophy of life, is only after adventure and a good time. Funny, daring and tough, she is a consummate survivor. When the girls gatecrash a fancy party, Kate meets and falls for Eugene Gaillard, a sophisticated older man who is separated but not divorced from his wife. Initially attracted to each other as opposites, they soon find that their conflicting wants and needs as well as their dissimilar backgrounds, make for a turbulent relationship.
When the first book of the trilogy was originally published in the 1960’s, it was banned in the author’s native Ireland because of sexual content. It was denounced as a smear on Irish womanhood. The priest in the author’s home parish even led a bookburning on the chapel grounds, at which several women are said to have fainted. When The Lonely Girl came out, it was condemned as being even more immoral than The Country Girls. The author’s own mother went through the book, blacking out all the offending words. It is no wonder that Edna O’Brien made her home in London after that. Today it is hard to believe that these books could stir up so much moral outrage. This is not to say that the novel should be read merely as a curiosity or a period piece. On the contrary, the honest portrayal of women, of their strengths and frailties, of the universal pattern of their lives and loves, will always be relevant.
Edna O’Brien’s spare prose style is perfectly suited to the ingenuousness of the narrator, Kate. It also has the effect of lending an air of inevitability to the story. It is as if the author were saying: “look, this is just the way of the world for we women, it’s as simple as that.” The way of the world for Kate is disillusionment and pain, but for the irrepressible Baba, there is usually something to laugh about. This wonderful balance of thematic elements, within a controlled, often ironic style, is Edna O’Brien’s true talent.
The Lonely Girl contains brief flashes of the more flowing, lyrical style that the author, heavily influenced by James Joyce, developed more fully later in her career. When one comes across these flashes of lyricism, they take one’s breath away, being all the more powerful for their rarity. Edna O’Brien deserves her place amongst the giants of Irish literature, both for her unique prose and for her insight into the human condition.
For ardent fans of Edna O’Brien’s later novels, it is certainly worth revisiting The Lonely Girl – it is like returning to the source. For those as yet unfamiliar with her work, this book is a terrific introduction to one of our truly great contemporary writers.