Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing, Baileys Prize, Women's Fiction, Eimear McBride
I can't make my mind up about this book. I think it's going to take some time for the dust to settle.

It might well be a truly great novel, but it is an incredibly difficult read not only because of the content but because of the style too. The plot follows an unnamed narrator's adolescence in (presumably) 1990s Ireland and focuses on the her relationships with her ranting, impossible mother and her older brother who has been left with cognitive damage after suffering a brain tumour in infancy. The narrator's bond with her brother is complex; she is both deeply embarrassed by him but loves him fiercely- his presence and his dependence are one of the only constants in her life. Her mother is infuriating, repeatedly demanding specific behaviors and actions, then indignantly reprimanding and lecturing when they are delivered. The guilt and shame that she attempts to pile onto the narrator in an effort to control her do nothing but drive her further and further away. Guilt, anger and shame are probably the most prominent themes throughout.

The narrator is a tragic and honest, if slightly mysterious character. She never really gives much information about herself, never really talks about what she wants or hopes for. After a sexual encounter with an uncle at the age of 13, various lectures about godliness and obedience from her mother and after enduring constant shame for having to live with her socially withdrawn brother, the narrator becomes a sexual loose cannon first at school, then college. Rumours quickly circulate about her lifting her skirt behind the bike shed, in the school's toilets, in the bushes at the park. Stumbling from one meaningless encounter to another, she becomes increasingly masochistic, only responding to pain and shame. The unnamed protagonist is such a tragic character, though she never seems to be seeking pity. All she ever really feels is anger and loss.

McBride's prose is poetic, but hardly lyrical- I don't ever recall encountering enjambment in any other prose, and that's the only thing it can be called really, however pretentious it sounds to say so. The fragmented style is jerky, often difficult and sometimes quite obstructive- long paragraphs are constructed out of sentences that are one or two lines long. Syntax, tenses and verb endings go right out of the window from the first line, creating an almost flick-book effect with words. Thoughts and speech become indistinguishable and monologue and dialogue look identical. Sometimes it's hard to tell if what is happening is real or imagined. It's like a novel got cut up into shreds and only partially pieced back together and the effect of this is pretty incredible.

Difficult as it might be to understand, it cannot be denied that McBride's technique is incredibly effective. There's a first-hand quality to the plot's events that is remarkable- it does not evoke it delivers. The narrator does not describe her life, but displays it before the eyes of the readers- almost in flashcard-like images. The violence, the breathlessness of the plot's events are embedded into the writing in a way that description could never manage. It's incredibly immediate, though it is hard to take it in at the time. It's a reading experience that's very, very hard to forget. I think it is in with a very decent shot at the Bailey's Prize for 2014, for the uniqueness of the read at the very least.

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