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August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien

When I came across this short novel published in 1965, in a bag of books from my late Mum’s, I had to read it straight away for two reasons.  The obvious one is the title – it’s August – when better to read it.  The more compelling one however, was the cover photo on my edition which is of O’Brien herself.  Apart from ‘Read me’, her direct look seems to imply a book that will be chaste and wanton, and definitely hints at darkness. Of course she does know what fate has in store for Ellen, whose story this is.

Ellen, a young Irishwoman, is separated from her husband. As the book opens, he has arrived to take their young son off on a long camping trip. Ellen waves them goodbye, and a few days later she’s no longer missing them, for she has company, and foreplay soon starts…

He was doing what he could. Her arms were singing and her hips wild with little threads of joy running through her like little madnesses. After a year’s solitary confinement.
‘I’m out of practice,’ she said.
‘A girl like you.’ He didn’t believe it. Who would? She was twenty-eight and had skin like a peach and was a free woman with long rangy legs and thick, wild hair, the colour of autumn.

Ellen in appearance sounds rather like Edna herself, doesn’t she?

Her lover is a married man with kids, and another mistress called Miranda. Ellen is under no illusions, but after a night of passion, she does believe they will see each other again…

‘I suppose we’ll ring each other up,’ he said when she got out and stood on the kerb holding the door.
‘I suppose we will,’ she said. Wise now with the soft lustre of love upon her. Her eyes shining. They would meet soon and she would open again. The river of his being flowering into the pasture of her body. She was thinking of that when she got to the restaurant.

O’Brien is brilliant at using the world of nature for describing the joys of sex – while it’s all going well that is!

It’s a slack time at work, Ellen has some leave saved up, and feeling lonely after her encounter, decides to go to the south of France on the spur of the moment, with sun and sex on her mind. Every man she encounters gets the once over as a potential holiday romance. Her instincts aren’t always right though – the handsome Frenchman sitting next to her on the plane was looking forward to getting back to his wife and family in the mountains; the young hotel bell-boy gets the wrong end of the stick and makes a pass. With slightly less of a language barrier, will the Austrian violinist from the hotel orchestra be more the right thing?

‘And this,’ he asked, pointing to where her nipple lay, flat, under the flowered dress.
‘Nipple.’
‘Hot word,’ he said. It took her a minute to understand that he wanted not ordinary words, but erotic ones for wooing Englishwomen.

Soon though, she falls in with the entourage of an actor, and is courted by his manager Sidney, an older man. Hoping that the actor Bobby will eventually notice her, Ellen joins the party and is whirled into another world full of drama.

From this point on the book took on a distinct aura of Hemingway’s rich young things from The Sun also Rises – life is just drink, party, drink, get bored, drink, drive, drink, fight, drink, party, drink – you know the sort of thing; but also the failing relationships of Dick and Nicole Diver from Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.  There’s a timeless quality to this group’s exploits that echoes those earlier novels, and of course the Mediterranean setting reinforces it too – the sun and blue water acting as a reflecting and magnifying lens. I can’t tell you what happens after that. You’ll need to find that out for yourself – but it’s shocking on several levels.

Having become a mother while very young, Ellen’s release from the confines of single parenthood allow her to revert to her younger self and become a flirt. This, she enjoys at first, but as her holiday continues, it becomes something much darker, even an drug. O’Brien takes us into the mind of Ellen, from the frivolity of her lusty passions to the clarity of maturity that comes from having experienced the cycles of real life, and tinged with Catholic guilt. I really felt for Ellen.

This novel has so much light and shade – being racy and earthy, and full of the joys of love and nature, with some robust language, and then coming down to earth with a bump – becoming matter of fact and direct. I think I’ve found another author from the second half of the twentieth century to add to my list of greats.  Like Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark, O’Brien doesn’t waste words, or pad things out with long descriptive passages.  This novel may not have Beryl’s wicked humour, but it’s packed with romance and darkness and didn’t disappoint. Thanks to my mother too, I’ve got several more O’Briens to read. (9/10)

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I inherited this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien. Pub 1965. Paperback, 169 pages.
Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (Vintage Classics) by Ernest Hemingway
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald.

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