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.