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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

During the summer of 1970 I traveled in Europe with three, thin, orange-white Penguins.

The three books were Edna O'Brien's trilogy, "The Country Girls" that gave voice about a "previously muzzled generation of Irish women." The first novel, published in 1960, took O'Brien three weeks to write. Whether that's Irish blarney I don't know. But ten years earlier Edna had left rural County Clare for Dublin, with its beckoning "sins and guile and blandishments." There she made an important literary discovery, as recounted in her 2012 memoir: "Country Girl."

"Dublin was a more trusting town in 1950, and secondhand books would be left on the trestle tables outside the shops...On Bachelor's Walk I found a slim volume called "Introducing James Joyce" by T.S. Eliot....I bought it for four pence and carried it with me everywhere...so I could read it at will and copy out the sentences, luminous and labyrinthine. It was when I copied them out that I began to realize how great they were, the short flawless snatches of dialogue, lush descriptions of corpses...of sea and sea stones... then the extraordinary ascensions, in which worlds within worlds unfolded."

I first read O'Brien's trilogy fifty years ago but would have missed the significance of Baba Brennan chastising her good friend, Cait Brady in this way. "Will you for Chrissake stop asking fellas if they read James Joyce Dubliners. They're not interested. They're out for the night. Eat and drink all you can and leave James Joyce to blow his own trumpet." Ironically, that is what Edna (Cait-Kate) did in 1999. She wrote "James Joyce: A Life" : a 178 page book of lucid, engaging prose about the author whose linguistic brilliance she loved from the day she bought T.S. Eliot's book on Joyce in Dublin.

Now, Edna O'Brien is 89. And in over 60 years of holding a pen (she does not type or use a computer), she has written 23 novels, 4 nonfiction, and five dramas. Her memoir, begun at age 78, ends in her London home, upstairs where the room is "full of light, like a room readying itself for a last banquet." What literary sustenance has O'Brien offered the reading public since 2012? Two more novels! And both novels required extensive research and travel: "The Little Red Chairs" (2015), and the 2019 "Girl", set in Nigeria. Edna's remarkable life, to be continued.



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