The book tells a story of Caithleen Brady, it follows her from her early teens into early twenties, giving us a chance to see how she evolves form a child into a young woman. Caithleen’s family is poor, her father abusive, yet she manages to stay positive and full of hope. She is friends with Baba, coming from much wealthier family. Though it often looks like they are more frenemies, with Baba tormenting and ridiculing Caithleen most of the time, I wondered why she is taking it, but on the other and Baba was probably the person closest to her.
The book was published in 1960 and caused quite a scandal in Ireland, including it being banned by censors and burned by the priest in O’Brien’s parish. It is interesting how O’Brien portrays men around Caithleen, all of them older, many of the expecting to marry her when she becomes older and almost taking it for granted that she will happily settle to one of them, as if it was her only option. When after leaving the convent school Baba and Caithleen end up in Dublin they throw themselves into the city life, with parties, alcohol and men. Caithleen gets involved with a married man, with very naive and typical hopes that he will have him for herself one day. The freedom the girls have and use in 1960 surely must have been shocking.
What I liked about Caithleen was that despite being swept by her new life, first in convent school and then in Dublin, she stays in a way rooted in the country, she misses it even if she knows it is not a life she’d want, she knows she comes from there.
Initially I struggled with the rhythm of O’Brien’s prose, lyrical, but also easily distracted from the action into a description of nature or feeling, but with time I not only got used to it, I actually found it calming. It gave the tale the distance it needed not to become a flat, literal story of growing-up. Through Caithleen’s struggles O’Brien also shows how the role of women was perceived in the society and how those old, conservative preconceptions start to shake at their foundations, but the lyrical language also prevented it from being mainly a sharp sociopolitical statement, it created the needed middle-ground between Caithleen’s story and the broader observation.
I had one more O’Brien book in my list and was definitely looking forward to it.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska