A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 3 November 2013.
Irish writers seem to thrive in exile, the farrow who escaped the sow. Joyce in Zurich, Beckett in Paris, and Wilde in London are but a few examples. Eimear McBride, the latest star in the Irish literary firmament, has fetched up in Norwich. Her technically daring and profoundly disturbing first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, is one of the favourites for the Goldsmiths Prize, to be announced on 13 November. McBride has been described "as that old-fashioned thing, a genius", and time may show it's not too fanciful to align her with these illustrious predecessors.
She is an ardent admirer of Joyce and her stylistic daring was inspired by the maestro's example. In common with Joyce she experienced a peripatetic childhood. Her parents were from the North of Ireland but they moved to Liverpool, before she was born, to escape the sectarian violence. When she was three the family moved to Tubercurry in County Sligo and after that to Castlebar. McBride does not have warm romantic memories of the West of Ireland. She is particularly exercised by the primitive attitudes towards women and sexuality that she experienced there. "Being an Irish woman I am very interested in issues around sexuality. Growing up there as a female was a very difficult thing." The utterly apposite term "girleen" which recurs in her book encapsulates perfectly these attitudes - the double diminutive speaking volumes. She went to London at 17 to study drama and has only returned for family visits.
Prior to moving to Norwich, McBride spent four years in Cork. This was not without its own difficulties. She found our second city very insular and clannish. "It was very hard to get to know people. If you weren't related to them or went to school with them they didn't want to know". Also, her dealings with the local arts scene didn't go too well: "everyone is so bloody territorial, nobody wants to help anyone else out". McBride found Norwich much more welcoming and quickly gained friends and contacts within its arts community. She is settled there with her young daughter Éadaoin and her husband William Galinsky, who is director of the prestigious Norfolk and Norwich Festival. She has no desire to go back to Ireland but would at some stage love to return to London where she spent 12 years: "it's the only place I ever felt at home".
Ask the average Irish person about Norwich and you'll probably find that Alan Partridge and Norwich City FC are as much as you'll glean. Our diaspora is snagged by Liverpool and Birmingham long before it gets that far east. Once the second city of England, Norwich boasts a magnificent 11th century Norman cathedral, and, notwithstanding the philistinism of its famous fictional son, is a thriving centre of culture and the arts.
I travelled there recently to talk to McBride. While hardly the only Gael in town, McBride maintains that she doesn't know of any other Irish people living there apart from Graham Linehan. And she's never met him. But this move to Norwich launched her literary career. She had finished her novel nine years ago while living in London and hawked it around the publishing circuit. While she garnered fulsome praise and admiration from all sides, none of those she approached were willing to take a chance on such a stylistically challenging work. It blushed unseen in a cupboard at home for years until a chance encounter with Henry Layte at an arts event in Norwich brought it forth. He was a director of Galley Beggar Press, a small local publishing house. He offered to read it, immediately saw its potential, and promptly published it. First novels come and go like mayflies but McBride's book grew legs thanks to a couple of very high-profile reviews. David Collard sang its praises in the Times Literary Supplement. He described himself as "seduced by the beautiful syncopations of McBride’s prose". This was followed by an uncommonly lengthy and even more enthusiastic review by Adam Mars Jones in the London Review of Books. His three page paen referenced Joyce, Beckett, Hemingway, and even Roberto Bolano in his detailed analysis of the book. He concluded his review with the words "when this little book is famous". So far so literary. An even more influential review, from a readership perspective, was one by Anne Enright in the Guardian. She described it as "an instant classic – an account of Irish girlhood to be set alongside O'Brien's The Country Girls for emotional accuracy and verve".
Someone reading her novel might expect its author to be an Irish version of Virginia Despentes, a hard-bitten habitué of the wild side. Or, even a radical feminist, given to espousing the Andrea Dworkin line on sexual relations. However, before we met we had exchanged a few emails that suggested otherwise. They spoke of a "toddler" and conventional baby-sitting concerns. Also, she had arranged for us to meet at a gastro pub called the Mulberry on Unthank Road - a cosy choice in a nice middle-class area. In person she turned out to be friendly, open and totally lacking in any overt angst, or arty preciousness. Her accent is Irish but neutrally so - it's hard to pin a county to it. While I wouldn't say she had a sunny disposition, she was easy company, talked freely, and has a good sense of humour. Her mood only darkened when the subject turned to some of the themes in her book: sexual mores in the West of Ireland and the death of her beloved older brother. Her father died when she was just eight and she still remembers him affectionately as someone who taught her to read and guided her towards books. His death when she was eight did not affect her as deeply as that of her older brother Donagh who died at 28, just after she finished her drama course in London. She found his death following a protracted battle with cancer "very devastating" and admitted that "it shattered my confidence". This event, which is fictionalised and transmuted in her novel, threw her into turmoil about her direction in life. "Acting had been protection" she says, and now she was facing existential truths. She travelled to Russia and after a period of reflection there she decided to abandon her theatrical ambitions and try her hand at writing. With the support of her husband and a string of temping jobs in London she completed her novel in six months. A burglary which resulted in the loss of all her hand-written preparatory notes only spurred her on to finish it. There things rested until that chance encounter in Norwich brought it blinking into the light of day.
Many readers first reaction to her book is to baulk at the twisted syntax, the cryptic language, and above all the sexual violence. The rape scene and the escalating sexual abasement portrayed in the book are designed to shock and confront the reader. McBride concedes that these scenes are deliberately cranked up and exaggerated to make her point about the attitudes to women she encountered in the West of Ireland. There is also a feminist agenda. She believes that "casual sex was sold to women as a form of liberation" and her protagonist is depicted as acting on this to an extreme that would satisfy the Marquis de Sade.
While her heroine's escapades may be far removed from the bovine carnality of Molly Bloom, McBride's stylistic idiosyncrasies owe a direct debt to Joyce. She makes no bones about her admiration for his cavalier attitude towards punctuation and conventional language. When she was writing Girl (as she terms her novel, an uncharacteristically luvvie lapse) she kept a quotation by Joyce (from a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver) over her desk:
"One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot."
This is Joyce's variation on Emily Dickinson's: "Tell the truth but tell it slant". McBride followed this dictum in creating a uniquely effective language to recount her tale.
A number of reviewers, while praising her work, have suggested that it might be a one-off masterpiece. Its style and content are so shockingly original that it might be difficult to emulate. McBride has no such reservations herself. Her second novel is nearly completed and although she wasn't prepared to tell me too much about it she conceded that it was set in London and smilingly added that there would be lots more sex.