Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 15 September 2013.

Eimear McBride's first novel is not for the faint-hearted.  They'll be reaching for the smelling salts in the book clubs of South County Dublin.  When you get get over the shock of the radical style you'll find yourself immersed in a world that is disturbingly violent and sexually transgressive.  It took nine years to get into print.  Publishers loved it but couldn't see a market for its twisted syntax and its dark, dark themes.  Eventually a small English publishing house took a punt and it has been rewarded with critical acclaim in such august literary organs as the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.  A lengthy review by Adam Mars-Jones in the latter is positively effusive in its praise.

It took me three abandoned attempts to get past the first few pages.   But I stuck with it and around page nine lost my fear and began to enjoy the strange and exhilarating ride.  There are Joycean touches.  The early baby-talk has echoes of Portrait of the Artist and the limited punctuation (not a comma in sight) and stream of consciousness suggest the concluding soliloquy in Ulysses.  But it's a long long way from the bovine carnality of Molly Bloom.  Beyond the stylistic strangeness, beyond the familiar tropes of repression and depression in rural Ireland, beyond the absent father, the  violent mother, the handicapped brother, and the abusive uncle lurks the story of a country girl relishing her sexual abasement.  We get an early hint of it in her ambivalent reaction to her uncle's opening foray when she was fifteen. Mixed in with the violence and pain of the rape were occasional darts of pleasure.  And subsequently she became complicit in her uncle's selfish and relentless pursuit of gratification.  Maybe the violence associated with her sexual awakening became a requirement for satisfaction.  Either way, the book describes an escalating scenario of sexual violence that would do the Marquis de Sade proud.

A thread running through the book, and one of the sources of the narrator's angst is the plight of her older brother.  Afflicted with cancer as a child his development has been impacted by various operations leaving him with mild mental and physical handicaps.  She observes and is made wretched by his plight as they both grow up.  One particularly poignant scene in the schoolyard sees the eager but inept boy being sneered at by his peers during a football game.  But the nihilism and the alienated sexual freneticism of the narrator are not fully explained by anything depicted in her bleak background.

McBride is a dark pointillist.  Her short sentences, frequently merely a word or two, coalesce to create a horrific world where religious superstition and bullying are the norm and sexual encounters are nasty, brutish and not short on violence.   The rat-tat-tat of these sentences are like drum beats cranking up your emotions.  There's an incantatory feel to them.  The absence of conventional syntax, of subject, predicate, and object, gives your imagination room to roam within the cryptic dabs of meaning.  It sounds flakey but works in practice.  The book will arouse powerful emotions in anyone who accords it the respect of reading it with attention.

This cry of pain from the halls of hell is a tour-de-force.  It's difficult to see where McBride can go next - if anywhere.  This might be a one-off masterpiece rather than the first step in a literary career.  More Harper Lee perhaps than Edna O'Brien.

I know little about McBride or her background.  She grew up in Ireland and lives in England, and had a brother who died relatively young. After finishing the book it was relief to see that she has listed her mother among the acknowledgements.  First novels can be autobiographical but it ain't necessarily so.  You'd be horrified to think that the author has come close to some of the experiences delineated in this powerful and disturbing book.  Fiction can sometimes be just that.

Galley Beggar Press
Pages 205

John P. O'Sullivan