The Country Girls Trilogy
The Country Girls
Book one of three.
This book exudes charm. It’s about two friends growing up in rural Ireland and sort of waiting on the cusp of their lives to start. Caithleen is rambunctious and energetic and sexually charged, even in her teens, and dreams of running off to the “big city” for her education and her adventures. Whereas Bridget is more staid and safe. They both end up in school, have some minor misadventures, and come home in their late teens ready for what’s next. For Caithleen it’s the affair she’s always wanted with the older married man, and for Bridget, it’s decidedly not that.
This is book is jam-packed with charm, funny stories, and acts as a sort of “nice” precursor to Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Books in their portrayal of rural Ireland. Because this is the first of three novels, I think it might be worth it to mention a few things about its style and prose. It’s a straightforward novel and shares a lot with something like a lot of mid-century English and Scottish novels (I know I know, it’s Irish; I am just trying to make a point on the style). The prose is clear and concise and while there is dialect in the dialog, it’s nothing nearly attuned to phonetics as Trainspotting or Roddy Doyle. It’s closer to a book like Girls of Slender Means or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Here’s a sampling of the novel:
Yes, I love Hickey, I thought; but of course what I really meant was that I was fond of him. When I was seven or eight I used to say I would marry him. I told everyone, including the catechism examiner, that we were going to live in the chicken run and that we would get free eggs, free milk, and vegetables from Mama. Cabbage was the only vegetable they planted. But now I talked less of marriage. For one thing, he never washed himself, except to splash rainwater on his face when he stooped in over the barrel in the evenings. His teeth were green, and last thing at night he did his water in a peach tin that he kept under his bed. Mama scolded him. She used to lie awake at night waiting for him to come home, waiting to hear him raise the window while he emptied the peach-tin contents onto the flag outside.
The Lonely Girl/The Girl with Green Eyes
Book two of three
I liked book two more so than book one for a few reasons. One, it felt like a more cohesive story. Partly that’s because I just think it is one. The narrative is tighter, there’s a more clear goal, and the book works toward that goal with a fierce pace. Two, the novel goes down some familiar but still interesting paths.
In this book, we move from young girls (well, girl mostly) trying to figure out what it mean to be a woman in this world, to being a woman in this world and finding the expectations and agency wanting. Flirting with boys, smoking cigarettes and such are all fine and dandy, and feel like living, but given the relative and actual restraints put on women in almost every country in the world in the 1960s and certainly in Ireland, being an adult sometimes feels like being passed off from one node of patriarchy to the next. At least in breaking form, marrying a sinful (he’s fine, but according to conservative Catholicism…) older man at least gives one the sense of choice. He’s more than willing to go along.
Here’s a telling passage after our main character has left home and been found out by her family and is trying to figure out her next steps:
“I sent you two pounds,” she said. I might have known that Baba would send it, because she has a good heart.
“What about Eugene, Baba, please tell me. Do you think I could go to him?”
“”You’re twenty-one–it’s legal for you to put your head in the gas oven even if it’s against the law,” she said, and got up and gave me some more money and a travel bag to put my things in and some powder for my face. My face was gray and pulpy from worry and lack of sleep. She took her little gold watch from under the pillow and read the time.
“You’ll want to hurry, you aul fella will be here with a pitchfork any minute.” And she hugged me before I left.
Girls in their Married Bliss
Book three of three
The final book of the trilogy flips the narrative script a little. For one, the narrative is no longer told from Caithleen’s perspective and that difference is everything. It actually causes you to doubt a lot of the truth from the first two books, at least in terms of scope and intensity. Now we have Baba (Barbra) telling us what happens alongside a third person voice later in the novel. The other change that I found interesting is the switch from Caithleen being called “Cait” in her own voice, to being called “Kate” in Baba’s and the other narrator. This also further creates a sense of doubt in the trustworthyness of the first two novels.
The other big difference is the irony of the title. It’s deeply ironic, but it’s not funny. This is not a funny book. It reads much more like a Patrick Hamilton novel than the first two did. It’s a little cynical and sardonic, as opposed to humorous, and the themes and situations are darker. Where England and America might kind of promise a kind of agency for “liberated women” the women here, both chained to and coming from a suppressive society find their own consciousnesses weaponized into their own repression at times. They are lied to about the possibilities out there for them, and so when they go for them at all, they are coldly cast back into reality. And the implications and consequences are severe and striking.
The follow-up catches us back up a little, but it’s only a taste. It’s interesting but like most epilogues written well after the fact, it’s more an exercise for the author than the read.