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Posts Tagged ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’

SWF 2014 logoOne of the highlights of the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival was seeing Irishwoman Eimear McBride talk with Geordie Williamson about her stunning, award-winning debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (my review here). The novel was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Prize (previously the Orange Prize for fiction) in 2014 (announced this past week). The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to ‘reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, which gives you an idea of where A Girl is placed.

Geordie asked Eimear to set up their discussion by doing a reading. And what a pleasure it was to hear McBride read from the work that is so stylistically different to pretty much everything you’re likely to read. She read from the opening, which I confess I had to re-read a couple of times before I got what was going on, what with the jagged short sentence structure she employs. And although in my own head the writing quickly came alive, it was another thing to hear it spoken aloud by its creator.

The risk with the experimental style McBride employs, said Williamson, is that it could have fallen into an idiolect that no one understands, a modern companion to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which many regard as a dead-end of high modernism. This is something that McBride avoids. But, asked Williamson, ‘we have to talk about punctuation: what have you got against the comma?!’

The comma is overrated, joked McBride, before she went on to say the use of the full stop shows the reader that something else is going on in the story. It’s an immediate signal. Williamson noted Henry James as a great user of commas, the master of building up tension in a sentence for as long as possible, holding completion at bay. McBride said the truncated sentences match the experience of the unnamed girl narrator.

How did the style develop? She said she spent a long time writing and then, aged twenty-five, she read Joyce’s Ulysses, and everything changed. All the work she had done went into the bin. She felt there is a lot of room left in the modernist tradition to plumb. Proper sentences don’t necessarily allow us to show all of human experience.

Williamson said Irish writers typically choose between Joyce and Beckett as their inspiration, but McBride said she didn’t see the difference between the two. Language is key for both of them. Williamson mentioned another possible influencer, likening short sentences to the ultimate ‘bloke’: Ernest Hemingway. Did McBride consider choice of gender and flip it? She said, you’re not conscious of gender as a writer. You ‘don’t write as a woman’.

The discussion then went into the area of plot, the story being about the relationship between a girl and her mentally challenged brother in a close Irish Catholic community as she comes of age. In many ways, noted Williamson, this is the traditional Irish story. It was, said McBride, a horror to me that that was the story I was going to write. She did not set out to write that story, but that was what she found.

McBride spoke briefly about her upbringing. Born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents, she moved to the west coast of Ireland when she was two. She went to convent school with all the associated bad nun experiences. At seventeen she moved to London to go to drama school as a means of escaping all of it, thinking she’d never go back to Ireland. And when she did go back she found out she had been right to think she should have never gone back!

The conversation returned to Beckett and Joyce, the two giants of Irish literature who cast very long shadows. It seems you have to get them out of your system to be an Irish writer. Another influence McBride noted was renowned Irish author Edna O’Brien. Experimenting is not done with yet, said McBride. Finnegan’s Wake scared people into moving back towards realism. But there’s an appetite in readers for brave and different books. Readers are adventurous, she said, something publishers forget. She described the nine year wait from finishing the manuscript before she found a publisher to take the book on, arguing that the increasing commercialisation of publishing houses has played a detrimental part in cutting down variety. To be a writer and a reader, she said, is to be an adventurer, a point that was welcomed with applause from the audience. Here, here, I say.

It took her six months to write three drafts in 2004, and then sent it out to publishers. Some said it was brave, and of good quality, but they couldn’t see the market for it. This went on for four years before she gave up and put it in a draw. It was a series of fortunate connections she made in Norwich that led to the manuscript getting to a brand new publisher run by people who admitted they knew very little about publishing, and even then it took a while for it to come together. Kudos to Galley Beggar Press in Norwich for picking it up; (it’s published by Text Publishing in Australia). It was reviewed positively in the Times Literary Supplement in London, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What next? Her novel in development is an evolution of the style featured in A Girl. She is most interested in indescribable human emotion. Success does not make writing any easier or harder.

In response to questions, McBride detailed the writing process for A Girl as being one more of addition that subtracting through editing. She has a goal of 1000 words a day, and starts each day by reading the previous day’s work, something Peter Carey and many other authors do too. She then picks up at the most interesting sentence and continues on. She constantly asked herself whether a reader would understand what was going on, and she knew she was asking a lot of the reader. She read it aloud a lot, particularly in the second and third drafts. The darker parts were difficult to write emotionally, but ‘you need to give of yourself, a drop of your blood’.

She said she may well do an audio book version herself, which was greeted with applause, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else being able to read it like McBride does. And Geordie Williamson, who had made an earlier reference to a well-known curmudgeonly reviewer and his praise in the London Review of Books, said the final line of his review was ‘the nicest thing he has ever written’, which gives you a measure of the status of this gem of a novel. What was his line? Wondering about McBride’s ability to back up A Girl and create a new style for a new story, he wrote: “That’s a project for another day, when this little book is famous.”

A great session. A treat to savour.

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A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBrideA Girl is a Half-formed Thing is stylistically unlike anything I have read. An uncompromising coming of age tale, it is told in truncated sentences that cut like a sharpened blade (and proved quite the jolt after reading the luscious prose of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby!).

It is the story of an unnamed Irish girl growing up in a dysfunctional family, with a troubled mother (‘Mammy’) who maintains an obsessive devotion to the rituals and rites of Catholicism; a brother who had brain cancer when our narrator was very young and is compromised both mentally and physically because of the surgery required to remove the tumour; and a malevolent and predatory uncle, to whom she loses her virginity at the tender age of thirteen. The father left when she was two, perhaps earlier.

The relationship with her brother is the only pure love she has in her life, but as in all sibling relationships, troubles loom as she grows up and feels herself leaving him behind.

It is a challenging read, certainly at first. Here is the open:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Even in these opening lines, it is clear something is wrong in her life. This is the voice of the girl as a two-year old, but even as she grows and becomes an adult, the prose remains in this unsettled state. Don’t be put off. I soon got used to it. There is a remarkable musicality in sections, particularly with the dialogue, which sits subsumed within paragraphs a little like the dialogue of a Jose Saramago work, only cut-up.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some wonderful moments of levity. Like any two year old with an independent streak (she is ‘boldness incarnate’), our narrator gleefully escapes the bath her mother has run:

I’ll jump the bath when she has me. Running with my headful of shampoo shouting no Mammy no no no. Cold chest where water hits windscreen belly in the rain. Down those stairs as fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead. In my eyes. Nettling them. Mammy. Yelling Lady you come back or you’ll get what for.

And when crotchety Grandpa visits, he chastises the girl’s mother for letting her do forward rolls in a skirt. ‘It’s disgusting. It’s perverted. Underwear on display. What kind of carry-on is that? How is she supposed to be a child of Mary?’

Her estranged father dies of a stroke when she is thirteen, and Mammy and the two children move to a new home, a new school. Life is difficult. She doesn’t fit in at all. The boys bully her brother, and she often fails to intervene, giving rise to guilt – that most Catholic of weights, which is ever-present.

Water is a recurring motif, from the bath escape as a toddler right to the end, underlining the need (hope?) for a baptismal cleansing of the soul to which our narrator clings. It is even there, albeit obliquely, when her visiting uncle takes advantage of the impure thoughts she has about him: ‘He kisses me. The deep again.’ She goes on to think he tasted like ‘something deep’ too. The morning after the kiss she goes off and ‘falls’ deliberately into the nearby lake. On her return she meets her uncle in the kitchen, still soaking wet, while the others are asleep, and what follows is breathtaking, as the uncle has intercourse with her. As they begin:

That’s a thrill of me. That I am. Feeling running rivers over me. Running falls. I’m splashing falling into it. His cheek on my head. His dark hair. That I am warm in this. Full up. True. Here we are. Here we are. We eventually are here. Go let myself down in this.

It was only on reflection that I wondered whether the ‘we’ referred to here is her and her brother rather than her and her uncle; that is, the hopeless happiness she feels here is something that reminds her of the times she and her brother used to swim as kids, when ‘my feet are silver kicking through the frozen clouds beneath us’, times where she was whole, happy, pure. It’s difficult to tell. But she definitely returns to water throughout, and the release it offers from something too painful for her to carry.

The kitchen scene is not the most shocking in the book. Discovering a dark power in her detached sexuality, she gives herself to pretty much every boy and man she comes across, both in school and then in college, developing a taste for masochism as she loses her grip on what it means to be whole. She is the ‘half-formed thing’ of the title. At one point she contemplates telling us her name, but keeps it to herself; she has so little faith in people she cannot even trust us with that.

Later scenes with her uncle left me gobsmacked. Not even Jesus can save her: ‘If Jesus was here he’d have gone. Running. Screaming with his sandals all flapping in through the cow shit.’ What is gripping about these passages is the stifling compression the fragmented prose creates. Some passages left me feeling almost winded. And the moment her brother apologises to her and Mammy for something he feels guilty about is absolutely heartbreaking.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is writing at its most powerful. The story elements are not particularly new, but the package matches Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (my review) for intensity. It’s a one-off, and should be celebrated.

McBride is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) (www.swf.org.au for details). I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about her journey to publishing this firecracker of a novel.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

2013

Text

262 pages

ISBN: 9781922182234

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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