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Irish author Edna O'Brien receives France's highest cultural award

O’Brien, 90, is the author of 18 novels.

Image: Empics Entertainment/PA

CELEBRATED IRISH AUTHOR Edna O’Brien has been appointed a Commander in France’s “Ordre des Arts et Lettres”, entering the exclusive ranks of those awarded the nation’s highest cultural distinction.

“For being a legendary writer who has enriched Irish literature in inestimable ways and for nurturing French literature we award you the insignia of Commander of “L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres,” said French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin in a pre-recorded online message.

Bachelot-Narquin praised O’Brien for a “steadfast commitment in favour of liberty, both in your writing and in your life” and for “having inspired countless women by the force of your words”.

O’Brien, 90, is the author of 18 novels.

“This award is huge for me,” she said in a pre-recorded message from her home in London.

“I will wear this medal… as being talismanic for the rest of my life.”

Born in 1930 into a strict Catholic farming family in Clare, O’Brien’s father was an alcoholic and her mother saw writing as a sin.

“Writing was a very secret transaction because it was regarded as profane, both in our house and in my country, during my formative years,” she explained in her acceptance speech.

Her debut novel, The Country Girls, was published in 1962, and won the Kingsley Amis Award. It tells the story of a young woman navigating a repressive Irish society after World War II. The book was banned by the Irish censor and a few burned at the request of a Limerick parish priest.

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O’Brien has continued to court controversial topics, with her 1994 book House of Splendid Isolation focused on a terrorist who goes on the run and Down by the River, published in 1996, telling the story of an underage rape victim who sought an abortion in England.

Her most recent novel Girl was published in 2019 – depicting the trauma of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants.

O’Brien has already been awarded the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award and the PEN/Nabokov Award for work which “broke down social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond.”

Her work is “like a piece of fine meshwork”, wrote the late US author Philip Roth in the New York Times.

It is “a net of perfectly observed sensuous details that enables you to contain all the longing and pain and remorse that surge through the fiction,” he said in 1984.

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