Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘August is a Wicked Month’ by Edna O’Brien

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 208 pages; 2016.

Edna O’Brien’s fourth novel, August is a Wicked Month, was first published in 1965 and subsequently banned by the Irish censors for the story’s sexual candour.

That candour comes in the form of the book’s protagonist, Ellen, a 27-year-old Irishwoman separated from her husband, who goes on a solo holiday to the French Riviera that doesn’t quite work out as planned.

It’s a relatively bleak tale, punctuated by moments of fleeting happiness, joy, excitement and danger, as Ellen seeks solace from her loneliness and emotional isolation.

A trip to the sun

When the book opens Ellen’s husband offers to take their young son  — who divides his time between both parents — on a camping trip to Wales. This frees her up to enjoy her summer vacation from her job as a theatre critic by becoming  “a sort of tourist doing tourist things” in London.

A week into her leave,  a male friend she’s known for about a year drops by and kisses her in the garden. They go to bed together and Ellen finds herself besotted — “Not for years had she felt more happier, more content and therefore youthful”  — but she gets sick of waiting for him to call. To punish him, she decides to go away and books a trip to the south of France.

Her husband and son would not be back for a week or more and she would lie in a strange new place and let strange new things happen to her.

In France, everything is, indeed, new and strange. She has sex on the brain and flirts with almost every male she sees, including the man sitting beside her on the plane. But her judgement is skewed and her choices are poor. Nothing really works out as she would like.

When she falls in with a crowd attached to an American movie star, things look more promising. There are parties in big houses and plenty of attention from rich, powerful men. (Think The Great Gatsby but set in the sun of the French Riviera.)

But she clashes with one of the young American women in the star’s orbit and seems to come at everything from a different angle than everyone else. She tells her new acquaintances that she’s English to avoid uncomfortable conversations about religion and Catholicism. (Early on in the novel there is a brief reference to her having spent an “awful spell in the Magdalen laundry scrubbing it out, down on her knees getting cleansed” but with no further explanation, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. )

Mid-way through the book the mood of frivolity and sexual abandonment comes to a screeching halt when something happens to remind Ellen that independence comes at a cost.

Evocative and lyrical

I’ve read a handful of Edna O’Brien’s novels in the past, but August is a Wicked Month is by far my favourite.

It’s so evocative of a time and place and she writes so lyrically about being on holiday and experiencing new things. It’s also a fascinating insight into a woman’s interior life, her sexual desires and her hunger to live life to the fullest.

But it was the switch in mood — from light to dark — that really made an impression on me. It was like a kick to the stomach and suddenly the whole story took on a different purpose and became so much more than I had imagined at the start. It made me think about so much and I can see from having re-read the earlier sections that O’Brien had carefully plotted the entire story arc.

It’s a brilliant, brave and frank book. More, please!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘A Woman of my Age’ by Nina Bawden: A woman begins to question everything about her life and her marriage when she goes on holiday to Morocco with her husband.

‘The Summer Before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing: A well-educated woman contemplates her future after 20 years of marriage and motherhood at a time when having a career wasn’t open to all.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Africa, Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Nigeria, Publisher, Setting

‘Girl’ by Edna O’Brien

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 240 pages; 2019.

Edna O’Brien specialises in writing about ordinary people — usually women — being thrust into extraordinary, and often dangerous, situations, then examining how things play out. (See In The Forest, published in 2002, and The Little Red Chairs, published in 2015.) Her latest novel, Girl, is cut from a similar cloth.

In this short novel, which has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize and shortlisted for the 2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, O’Brien tells the tale of a Nigerian schoolgirl captured by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

I was a girl once, but not any more. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.

A frightening and often disturbing story, Girl reveals the depths of humanity’s dark heart and puts the reader in the shoes of Maryam, a teenage girl confronted by an unimaginable horror: stolen away from her family and made to live among violent, sexually depraved men with little to no hope of escape.

Of course, she does escape (otherwise there wouldn’t be much to write about) and her journey to freedom is almost as perilous and fraught as her life in captivity. Burdened with a baby and accompanied by Buki, another kidnapped teenage girl, she is forced to live by her wits, to scrounge for food in the forest and to keep her eye out for savage men in pursuit.

It is deeply telling that when she comes across a local nomadic tribe willing to provide shelter, their kind offer of help is soon withdrawn when they realise how dangerous it is to hide Maryam.

I was sitting on the bed when Madara came in. There was something wrong. […] She spoke standing and her voice was firm. ‘When the women went to the village this morning, the vendors at first refused to speak or do business with them. Word had got out that we were hiding a militant’s wife and child. Everyone down there is in terror. They know what will happen. Their gods will be confiscated, their stalls burned down and they themselves slaughtered. Then the Jihadis will come here for us, they know how to find us, they know every inch of this forest. They will destroy everything. They will take our herd. There will be nothing left of us.’
‘I will go,’ I said, half rising, wanting to thank her for the endless kindnesses, but she rebutted it.

This is an extraordinarily powerful tale, fast-moving and often confronting, but written with an exacting and sensitive eye. (O’Brien, who is in her 80s, visited Nigeria twice to research the novel and met survivors of Boko Haram’s cruel activities, so there’s a real ring of authenticity to the story.)

I liked that it didn’t get too bogged down in the machinations of the sect, but looked at the impact on one girl’s life during and after capture, shining a light on the terrible injustices and prejudices against women but also showing how a tenacious spirit can overcome the worst of what humanity throws at us.

I came away from this novel not downhearted or dispirited but feeling a sense of optimism for Maryam and the future ahead of her.

Reviewers dubbed O’Brien’s previous novel, The Little Red Chairs, her masterpiece, but I think they got it wrong. In my opinion, that accolade belongs to Girl.

Lisa Hill also liked this book.

This is my 3rd book for the 2020 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Author, Edna O'Brien, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien


Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is the Irish writer’s first novel in 10 years. (She’s written a memoir and a collection of short stories in the intervening years.) The book is about war crimes, retribution and justice. Many of the reviews in the mainstream press are billing it as her masterpiece. I beg to differ.

A war criminal on the run

The book’s title refers to the 11,541 red chairs that were put out on the Serajevo high street to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces. The chairs represented the number of people killed during the siege, which lasted almost four years. More than 600 of those chairs represented the number of children that died.

O’Brien’s novel looks at the long-lasting impact of that siege — and war in general — and focuses on a fictionalised war criminal from Montenegro (said to be loosely based on Radovan Karadzic) who goes in to hiding in a little Irish village. Here, Dr Vlad sets up a clinic as an alternative healer and sex therapist, thereby creating a bit of a stir with the locals, many of whom regard him as a hippy and a charlatan. But he settles in and wins over his harshest critics, including Fidelma McBride, a woman caught up in a sexless marriage, who has an affair with him.

Their relationship, which is tenderly drawn, becomes the undoing of Fidelma, when Dr Vlad is caught and exposed as a war criminal.

Three parts

The book is divided into three parts: the first sets the scene through the eyes of numerous small town characters to show how Dr Vlad became a member of the community and hoodwinked them all; the second tells of Fidelma’s new life in London, where she is a member of the underclass struggling to come to terms with her past; and the third reveals how she reconciles her “evil ways” by going to The Hague to witness Dr Vlad’s war crime trial.

Each part is different in style, tone and point of view from the one that went before, which can be slightly disorienting and jarring to the reader.

Yet, as a whole, the novel is very easy to read and O’Brien’s often breathless, occasionally convoluted prose contains some quite beautiful descriptions and turns of phrase. Here are some of my favourite examples:

‘Ah now,’ she said, blushing fiercely, the colour running up and down her neck in ripples, as if cochineal was trickling through her.


The surfers were watching for their moment, to disappear, to be lost from sight and then to reappear, like marionettes, arms, legs, torsos, flying and flailing, as they reached for their surfboards. In the brief lull, white foam carried on into the rocky shore, where it spent itself and went back out, leaving behind lazy pools and patterns, so that the foreshore seemed as if tubs of suds had been emptied into it.


Branches of the wisteria that climbed up the porch were ashen, like old bones, clawing their way. The lawn there was an unblemished cape of frost.

But the book is also littered with (unnecessary) exposition: long paragraphs of research that feel shoehorned in and add nothing to the story, such as this:

When they entered the Thames estuary, he said what a famous shipping route it had been, tankers and carriers from all over the world and how Francis Drake in 1577, with his guns and his one hundred and sixty-four men, set out for South America, at the behest of the Queen, to do maximum damage to Spanish galleons on which she wished to be avenged.

A novel about pertinent issues

That said, I did very much enjoy The Little Red Chairs. It is a strong novel about important issues — immigration, refugees, war and the impact of violence on women — and written in O’Brien’s distinctively beautiful prose. Even though its focus is largely on the aftermath of the Bosnian war, the issues raised in it, about violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, seeking asylum and finding a new place to call home, are timely and pertinent today, and all are expertly and  sensitively handled by the author.

But it’s patchy and not the crowning pinnacle of her long and varied career as some might suggest. But that’s not to say that it isn’t worth reading: even a less-than-perfect novel by a writer of this stature is far better, and more deserving of praise, than a lot of the stuff that gets all the buzz-worthy (social media) attention these days.

Finally, this interview with O’Brien about the book — screened on Channel 4 News last week — is worth watching:

Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting

‘In the Forest’ by Edna O’Brien


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 273 pages; 2002.

Set in the countryside of western Ireland, this dark, brooding book is based on a real life triple murder in which a man shot dead three people — a woman, her young child and a priest — in a forest glade in 1994. But wounds run deep and Edna O’Brien, who wrote the book eight years later, was accused of exploiting a gruesome crime for the sake of a novel and much vilified for her efforts.

With this is mind, I read In the Forest with some trepidation. But I was gripped from the first page and read the book within a matter of days.

Story of a kinderschreck

It tells the story of Mich O’Kane, a young boy who gets shunted from one institution to another. Devoid of any motherly love he grows into a fearsome individual that the locals call the Kinderschreck — a kind of monster — and eventually goes to jail for a serious crime.

Meanwhile, Eily Ryan, an unmarried mother, moves to the small town of Cloosh. Here, with her young son Maddy, she sets up home in a remote dilapidated cottage on the edge of the forest, where she can concentrate on her art.

But when O’Kane is released from jail he returns to Cloosh. With no family support and outcast by the locals, he is forced to live in the forest, only appearing in the village when he needs to beg or steal food.

Animal-like in behaviour and thought, he begins stalking Eily. One day, unable to control his sexual fantasies any longer, he abducts Eily and orders her to drive deep into the forest …

Dark and disturbing

There’s no doubt that this book is dark and disturbing. On more than one occasion I felt goosebumps erupt on my skin. But O’Brien never resorts to sensationalism. Her prose is careful, at times clipped, and she moves the story along at an almost annoyingly slow pace, building to the chilling climax slowly but surely.

What I didn’t particularly like was the narrative devices she uses. The story is told from too many divergent and various sources, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third person. While I understand this was probably O’Brien’s attempt to cover all points of view, to demonstrate that the crime was not as straightforward as one might have expected, it hampered the narrative drive.

All in all, In the Forest is an intriguing, atmospheric novel, which is almost Gothic-like in its brooding intensity. Just don’t expect to find yourself falling in love with O’Brien’s work.