Thunder, Lightning and Edna O’Brien

I’m on the beautiful island of Corfu, getting some post-submission, pre-viva downtime. I’m drinking too much, eating too much, reading just the right amount. I’m reading nothing academic at all.

When I got here I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s amazing dystopian novel about men, women, roles, reproduction. I read it years ago and decided on a re-read after the recent television series. I must say, the television was quite faithful to the plot, even if the characters didn’t always translate from page to screen. The television, however, has pre-empted how the story might continue with the pregnancy, unattended birth and attempt at escape. These things are hinted at only as possibilities in the book’s epilogue, an imagined archaeological conference in the twenty-second century. I can’t wait for the much-publicised sequel, The Testaments,in September.  What is most frightening is how foreboding the tale is; I read of a black woman in America, charged with manslaughter after her unborn baby died, when she was shot in the stomach: the shooter wasn’t charged. The mother of the unborn baby should have taken more care with her pregnancy and not got into a fight, putting the baby in danger. The charge has since been dropped, but this is modern America sinisterly reflecting Gilead. I’ve delayed watching the third series; I’m going to the Lowry Theatre in Manchester in September to see her ‘In Conversation’. Perhaps I’ll watch Series 3 on Netflix, but only after I’ve read Atwood’s sequel.

On the Sunday evening I came away, I watched an interview on BBC television, Alan Yentob interviewing the Irish novelist, Edna O’Brien: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0006pjjO’Brien is nearly 90 now, and it was a fascinating interview with a feisty, feminist writer. I had heard of O’Brien, of course I had; but it occurred to me I’d never read her, not one of her many books. I downloaded her Country Girls Trilogy onto my Kindle to bring away to read. I finished reading it yesterday. O’Brien is writing from a time only a few years before my own teenage, and I can so relate to it.  I came from a rural community too, not Irish, not Catholic, but sharing some of the tight-laced traditions and restraints she describes. It is a sad book. It is a funny book. It is a book grown from the sexual revolution of the sixties. When Country Girls, the first book of the trilogy, was first published—O’Brien claims it took her all of three weeks to write—it was banned in Ireland and publicly burned by the priest of the parish where O’Brien lived as a child and a young woman. Its crime? It dared to claim a space for female desire within the Catholic-dominated patriarchy that was (is?) Ireland. From the interview it was clear that it is based in autobiography, although like the best books, it contains elements of O’Brien’s imaginative story-telling too. She said the two principal characters, Caithleen and Baba, are two aspects of her own self. The first two books in the trilogy are painfully Oedipal, written from the point of view of Caithleen, a young woman seeking connection with a father-figure who is not, like her own father, an habitual drunk. Almost inevitably, she falls into an abusive marriage with a controlling older man. It can’t end well, and it doesn’t. The third book is written from the point of view of Baba, a feisty woman who knows what she wants from life, and knows how to get it. The two characters are so different, and O’Brien draws them both, fully and perfectly. Their narrative styles are so descriptive of their characters. It is beautifully written. The epilogue is the saddest thing I’ve read in years, possibly because I can see some of myself in both characters. I feel as if O’Brien is writing the story of my own navigation in the adult world of marriage, childbirth, relationships, aspiration. I can’t wait to read others of her books now. So thank you, Alan Yentob for bringing her writing to my attention.

On Friday evening we went into Corfu town by boat from Kassiopi. We had a lovely evening sitting in the town square amid the Venetian-style buildings watching the world go by. There was a procession of men, women, children in Greek national costume, which was colourful and interesting. We didn’t find out what they were processing about, and I’ve since googled and found nothing. But it was good to be there when it was happening, a little serendipity. On Tuesday it’s my birthday. I won’t say how old I am, but I will say a girl can’t have too many birthdays. On Tuesday we’re going on another boat trip, to Albania, which we can see clearly, heat haze permitting, from our hotel. I’m looking forward to that, something completely different. I’ll tell all next week.

 

IMG_1589
Albania in the mist, from our hotel in Roda

On Wednesday night we had a spectacular thunder storm; one of those storms in the Med that you just have to watch. There was fork and sheet lightning illuminating  up the night sky, huge winds, biblical rain, booming thunder, intermittent power outages. It lasted about forty-five minutes and is the best entertainment we’ve had since we got here; although of course, it is also significant of climate change and worrying on that count. But it was a complete force of nature. We learned at breakfast that six people died in the storm, but that was either in the south of the island or on the mainland: not speaking Greek, we couldn’t quite make out. We saw on the television cars floating along flooded roads, the devastation caused by extreme weather. But it was spectacular to watch. The sequel last night was, as often happens with sequels, a bit of a let down. Still sheet and fork lightning, still heavy rain, but the wind was less ferocious and the power didn’t fail. One huge clap of thunder was impressive though; we were at a Greek night in the hotel and the Greek dancers were performing. At that huge boom of thunder, the audience jumped as one orgamism; but the dancers carried on dancing as if they hadn’t heard a thing, consummate professionals all. I’ve often watched spectacular thunderstorms in this region; but the most frightening natural event was on Zakinthos, just a bit further south in the Ionian sea, about five years ago. There was an earthquake measuring 5.2 on the scale. Furniture moved, coffee spilled from cups, the swimming pool had waves. But it was the noise that I remember most; I was so impressed by the noise I wrote a poem about it. Here is that poem, my tribute to the force of nature that is the Ionian region of Greece.

 

Koukounaria Quake

mobile phone footage of lanterns swinging,
floors like tablecloths being shaken of crumbs,
windows spitting out their glass,
cars like Dinky toys tossed by a petulant child,
fissures in roads that swallow juggernauts whole:
this is my television-fed knowledge of earthquake.

But a mobile phone can’t record the noise,
as if the earth were turning in her sleep,
dropping her bedtime read to the floor, breaking
wind. She grinds her teeth and the hotel shifts
and the wardrobe slides across the bedroom
and ripples ride on coffee mugs and coffee
slops onto tables and tables walk the floor
and the swimming pool gets the surf up
and tourists, not used to this, make to leave
the safety of a structure built to withstand it.

Eleni checks on her pregnant daughter, the earth
settles to sleep again and all three carry on
as if something extraordinary didn’t just happen.

Rachel Davies
2014

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