Friday, August 01, 2014

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

Though not particularly a plot based novel its impossible to honestly review this without giving some spoilers about the story. There's an uncertainty about what's going to happen that I wouldn't really want to spoil, so read this with caution, but if you think its not your kind of book, hopefully I will convince you otherwise.

Having gone from obscurity to prizewinner "A Girl is a Half-formed Thing", debut novel by Eimear McBride has catapulted the Irish writer into a literary A list. No overnight success - she'd tried unsuccessfully to get it published before revisiting it with the boutique Galley Beggar Press - its been a strange kind of word of mouth success.

Telling the first person, stream of consciousness story of a young girl, whose brother is damaged by a brain tumour, its subject matter is not particularly an easy, or an enticing one. Yet, almost uniquely amongst contemporary fiction it has been lauded not so much for what its about, but the way that its been written. For the book is written entirely in a stream of consciousness,  from when the protagonist is just beginning to be aware of the world, through childhood, and into a confused, stressed adulthood. McBride not only maintains the voice, but gives it credence through the different phases of a person's life.

The voice itself feels heavily accented, with that wonderfully circumlocutory turn of phrase of rural Ireland. Its a tone that's set from the first page, and the cadence quickly establishes itself in your head. Yet its not Molly Bloom (which might be the obvious starting point) or even the comedy Irish of Mrs. Brown; instead, McBride gives us a dauntingly accomplished female consciousness that seems at the same time intimate, and unique. The verbal tics - full stops rather than comments; phrases being cut off before the verb - create a musical lilt that is not only funny, but also stops the flow ever becoming boring. There's a dramatic quality to this (McBride trained in drama), which is why, for a book written in a particular idiom, it rarely sags or becomes boring.

Getting into the book takes a few pages, and in many ways, the childhood, though important, feels a little generic in parts. The brother, several years older than his sister, appears in fragments. For though he has a brain tumour which has made him "slow", his religious mother will never admit there's any problem. The disabled brother comes alive through fragments - like all siblings they argue, but even as she becomes the "older" one, through her intelligence and experience, she is far more than her brother's protector (and even fails to do that in some ways.) Faced with questions at a new school about his scar he stymies conversation (and rumour and bullying) by saying it was a knife fight. When the truth comes out he is pilloried, butt of all jokes, and the younger sister sees this but can do little about it.

As dazzlingly engaging as the writing is, in the early part of the book, I wondered to what I extent it would be enough. For this tale seems one that has been trodden over so many times, especially lately. It's a story about the overhang of Catholic morality and hypocrisy in rural Ireland and the damage it inflicts on different lives in different ways. Their mother cannot admit there is anything wrong with her son, and her husband leaves (to the "I told you so" of her distant family). She is compromised - as one of a large family - by the patriarch, who can only see bad in her, though his own life is one of bullying determinism. These are lives from the fifties dragged into a more modern world. For the children are growing up in the late 70s/early 80s - "Star Wars" and video games have permeated even this highly religious state. Like Colm Toibin's "The Blackwater Lightship" or Anne Enright's "The Gathering" this is another story about a family circumscribed by fate, but almost incapable of escaping from the overhang of their religious upbringing and society.

Yet things are changing, and when the girl grows up, she flees to England to university. I was surprised how firmly established the book was in that early 80s period, a time of naïve, somewhat innocent change, perhaps happening swifter than its characters often knew. Our girl has done all she can to escape the stultifying family, but of course, its the family that won't let her escape: so that when her uncle comes to stay, it is a combination of his insouciance and her awakening teenage emotions that lead to a symbiotic, abusive relationship that will infect every aspect of her young life.

In this context, the book is much more about her, than her off-stage brother. She is the classic convent girl, letting rip with drink and sex, but without the self-worth required to make it what she really wants. Everyone in  the story seems full of self-hatred, but also caught up in a family web that they somehow endure. When she returns to find her mother complaining about her brother's laziness, she tries to intervene, and tells him to try harder; but she has intervened in a pact that her mother won't let her into. There's a complex interplay: her relationship with her brother; his relationship with both her and her mother; and the abusive uncle, and random men who become some kind of escape route for her unhappiness, and the bottled-up feelings of her childhood.

If it was this alone, then once one gets over the sheer depth of loathing in families in contemporary Irish fictions (so redolent of "The Gathering" in particular), there would be little there - the story would seem relentless, a kind of literary misery memoir. But "A Girl is a half-formed thing" is that rare thing, a book that cannot justifiably be paraphrased; its hard (even from the reviews I'd read) to explain the sheer pleasure that McBride gives the reader. Its not just that the narrator is funny, or that her stream-of-consciousness is so vivid, so peculiarly hers; there's something else as well - an innate playfulness and intimacy about this novel that, although its intense, means that its never difficult. For whereas Molly Bloom may have used all the words in Joyce's armoury (and many of his wife's) this narrator is sensual rather than intellectual. We get only imprints of the physical world. There are no phrases about moving from place to place, or drawing scenes. All we have is the flood of feelings and you have to read every word to place yourself in the centre of the novel.

This pleasure continues throughout the book; its perhaps the most sensory experience I've had reading a book since Saramago's "Blindness." In that novel the lack of sight is telegraphed through the prose - and here, McBridge similarly gives us an essence of a person, when that person is deprived of the usual familial love. Brought up by a mother alone; whose own emotional strength is almost all directed to her difficult elder son, the daughter drifts into disaster.  There is an element of the dramatic writer in all of this - you sometimes wish McBride would pull away a bit, allow her character something normal, give her some more air in which to breathe - or even let her meet another human being who isn't going to abuse her - yet the novel clearly has a desire to tell this story entirely through sensory experience. The only longer blocks of prose are verbatim prayers. We are in the strange, unsettling netherworld of Christ's suffering here. I'm reminded, not just because of the sexual abuse, and the manipulative family, of Lars Von Trier's "Breaking the Waves." Like the young woman in that, a religious upbringing has skewed the sense of self.

There have been quite a few articles lately about how disabled people are portrayed in novels. It was the theme of the fiction/non-fiction treatise "Fuckhead" which I recently read; are characters with a disability allowed to be themselves, or is the disability there to be a morality tale, a cipher of some kind, for the able-bodied characters? Even though we see her brother from a distance, he seems to be more achieved than this. He is unable to interact with his sister, or the world, except in what might seem a crass or simplistic way; yet interact he does; and unable to make changes, he accepts something of his life. That his devoted mother, and errant sister are both so distracted by their own share of life's troubles means that we sometimes do see him as the embodiment of Christ, "suffer little children" indeed... yet I think he is much more than that. He is as much a victim of their love, and their inability to let him out into the world, as they are. He brings the world in -  video games, too many sweets. Towards the end of the book something else happens which brings his sister back into his orbit.

These later scenes are protracted, hard to read, sometimes harrowing, and for the reader, emotionally overwhelming; but even here McBride's clear purpose and driven sense of retaining the complexity and veracity of the consciousness with which she is writing mean that we are taken along with it. Language breaks down even further as things get worse; and yet we are also there in her brother's room as the doctors and nurses and well meaning praying friends of her mother come by. Seeing her brother worsen, we are lead through a fracturing of consciousness, matched by the girl's own lack of self preservation. Throwing herself into the one meaningful relationship in her life, that with her elder brother, there's no longer room for lies and equivocation. At its peak I defy anyone not to find tears in their eyes.

It sometimes seems that all contemporary novels are similar: that they rarely use language in such a complete way as McBride does; but also bothat they play to some kind of agreed list of rules, that are about preserving a certain type of literary decorum. This novel goes the opposite way; it twists the reader, refuses to let you off the hook. You are in this girls' head, and will stay there until the last page. At times uncompromising, its never disappointing - the reviews can only begin to give an idea of the payback you get from sticking with it. I've read other overwhelming adventurous one offs over the years - "Fugitive Pieces", "The God Of Small Things" - here the canvas is even smaller, but even as someone who might have felt a little tired of the subject matter, I felt a great sense of connection, and - as a writer - a massive admiration for the bravura shown.

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