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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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Even the Dogs by Jon McGregorHow to describe the 2012 IMPAC Award winner by Jon McGregor? Searing. Unflinching. Empathetic. Majestic. Haunting. It’s all these things and more. It begins with a quote from Dante’s Inferno: ‘Cut off from hope, we live on in desire.’ It’s a perfect summation of the loose-knit group of urban drug addicts in the north of England and the days surrounding the death of Robert, an obese alcoholic with bad headaches, at whose derelict flat they often congregate.

This is the underbelly of the fringe of the underclass. People stuck in a trap of poverty and addiction. People whose lives are devoted to one thing: the next fix. Crack. Smack. Heroin. Brown. Gear. There are many names but only one outcome: ruination, of lives, bodies and souls. Not for the squeamish, Even the Dogs is realism at its brutal best.

The story opens with the police knocking down the door to Robert’s derelict council flat to find his decomposing body. He’s been dead for days. We then see a string of visitors to his flat, calling through the letterbox and scrambling in through an open window. They include Laura, Robert’s only daughter, and Mike, Ben, Heather, Danny—all arriving at different times over the course of a few days. I say ‘we’, because the narrator consistently uses this term. But who is this ‘we’? And how does this narrator get into the flat when the police forensic unit is busy doing their work? An early clue comes thus:

They don’t see us, as we crowd and push around them. Of course they don’t. How could they. But we’re used to that. We’ve been used to that for a long time, even before. Before this.

Is this ‘we’ some form of ghosts?

The images of the flat and its detritus are haunting:

… some broken-beated lullaby holding us up against the walls and against each other, while out hands fall open and spill the spoons and pipes and empty cans, the scraps of foil and paper and cotton wool. Our crumbs of comfort scattering across the floor. Our open hands.

It takes a few pages to settle into the narration. Time speeds up and slows. It jumps around. Events are repeated. There are unsettling shifts. We witness Laura’s childhood in a few paragraphs, the happy beginnings with Robert and his wife Yvonne, the discordant notes, the chaos of his drinking, the tragedy of its aftermath in which Yvonne leaves Robert and takes Laura with her. Interspersed within these paragraphs are flitting snatches of the police and forensic people going about their work on finding Robert’s body:

We can hear two policemen talking … We can hear, faintly, Robert and Yvonne in the bath, splashing each other, asking for the soap. But when we look, there’s no one there, and the tiles are still cracked, fallen into the empty bath, and the sink has still been pulled from the wall.

In the second of the story’s five sections we have the POV of Danny mixed with the ghostly narrator’s. Danny’s paragraphs often end suddenly in the middle of a sentence. We are in the mind of a drug addict who can’t focus, who suffers from poor memory and blackouts. As a superb marriage of form and story, it’s reminiscent of The Autumn of the Patriarch by Garcia Marquez (see my review here).

Danny found Robert dead and wants to find Laura but can’t:

Thing to do now before anything else was to find Mike, up at the Parkside squats where they’d been sleeping lately and find him there he must be there. But Laura. But needing to score. But Mike might have some would he fuck would he 

If he hadn’t gone to his brother’s. If he hadn’t said all that to Laura. If he’d stuck with Mike. Then none of this would have

(McGregor has obviously gone to the Jose Saramago school of minimal punctuation!)

The process undertaken after Robert’s body is found spins out—from the honest portrayal of his autopsy, through to his funeral service at which the minister asks the men who carried in his coffin to stay so that he wouldn’t be the only one to send Robert on his way, and then the coronial enquiry. Alongside, we delve into different characters’ minds and lives, learning about the roots of their problems, how they came to be part of this sorry reality.

Horrors pile on top of horrors. Beatings, thefts, mindless violence, drug use, out of which come unforgettable images, from the ‘digging’ into veins, the heron (heroin?) that flies just out of Danny’s reach along one of the canals, and the ghastly treatment of one homeless man’s feet. He’s not taken his boots off for six months. ‘Turned out he had trench foot so bad there were things crawling around in his toes.’

It’s unrelenting stuff and when the few brighter moments come they are like shafts of sunlight banishing a perpetual gloom, such as Danny’s imagined(?) interview with the police, when they ask him when was the last time he’d seen Robert alive and well, to which he responds he’s never seen Robert alive and [well]!

Sadly, Laura returns to meet her father, after he has given up all hope of seeing her again, and she soon becomes an addict. Her lovely hands and skin and perfectly manicured fingernails will never be the same. Instead we see, through Danny’s eyes: ‘Cracked red sores around her mouth which opened up when she smiled.’ She says to Danny that she’s going to get clean; Danny laughs in her face: it’s a story he’s heard before, many times.

The prose is incredible throughout, but one section in particular transcends everything else I’ve read in recent memory. It is the story of Ant, an addict who had served in the army in Afghanistan. In a breathtaking sequence, starting with the roadside bomb that blows up the vehicle he’s travelling in, McGregor traces the production of heroin from the spot Ant lands with one leg blown off and medics rushing to treat him in the swaying poppy fields, all the way through the Afghani production, to Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe, spreading out through Western Europe, a tentacle of which enters the UK through porous borders, until it ends up in a northern council estate, and from there into the syringe held by Danny, which he plunges into his neck because it’s the only place he can find a willing blood vessel. It’s six-and-a-half pages of majestic writing that alone would have been worthy of the IMPAC Award.

By the story’s moving conclusion in the coroner’s court, we find out who the ghostly narrator represents, why Robert had his headaches, explanations for his death, why Danny couldn’t find Laura, and whether any of the rest of them escape the inescapable.

A tough but rewarding read.

Thanks to Lisa @ ANZ LitLovers for running the competition in which I won it. You can read her review here.

Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

2010

Bloomsbury

195 pages

ISBN: 9781408809471

Source: won in a competition run by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers.

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