To the extent that there are “literary blockbusters” these days, such books often hew to a certain brand: They are big, ambitious, zeitgeisty works that account for world-historical events, juggle multiple narrators, characters, settings and chronologies. Combine equal parts high literary language, pop culture referentiality and time travel, ghosts or robots and serve lukewarm.
This might be a formula for success from the likes of David Mitchell, Donna Tartt or Haruki Murakami, but Irish novelist Eimear McBride’s, “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing” is something different, a defiantly unconventional and defiantly difficult debut.
In this story of a turbulent Irish girlhood, McBride stakes the first-person “I” in a way few other contemporary writers are willing to, without apology or detachment, and addresses sex, violence and girlhood in an unrelenting staccato prose style more akin to Modernists like Joyce, Beckett, Stein or Woolf than any of her contemporaries.
All this may account for the fact that it took nine years to get the novel published.
“I think a lot of contemporary fiction is suffering under the demands of an increasingly conservative publishing industry,” she told me in a recent email exchange, “with the result being a standardization of what fiction is allowed to be.”
Mainstream publishers admired the book, but deemed it unmarketable. McBride’s writing foregoes identifying quotation marks and largely discards commas, too.
For example, from a scene early in childhood:
“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 stars as fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead. In my eyes. Nettle them. Mammy. Yelling Lady you come back or you’ll get what for. A mad goat I’ll be. Rubbing bubbles.”
Last year, the book finally won allies in independent presses, and has gone on to earn both critical acclaim and a number of high profile prizes, including the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize). It was published last month in the U.S. by Coffee House Press, in Minneapolis.
For McBride, writing the novel was a conscious effort in creating an unmediated kind of fiction, “Rather than the writer being omnipresent throughout, guiding the reader and informing them how they should be responding to the story, I wanted to remove myself — as much as possible — from the narrative,” she told me.
It’s a stunning accomplishment in writerly voice. McBride has paid keen attention to the way language inhabits the mind, churning itself into inextricable knots. The effect is a disorienting one, but dazzling, too: narrative, description, imagination, quotation and direct address all linked in an uncurated live stream of language.
One quickly realizes that the discomfort and brokenness of the language runs tandem with the narrator’s girlhood, punctuated by violence and the illness of her older brother.
The book deals graphically with the spectrum of childhood and sexual abuse in Ireland, specifically that targeted at women. Words quickly become a bodily matter. McBride has claimed something important by writing “Girl” the way that she did: Language is never truly ambient or innocuous; it is always particular, always physical, never without consequence.
She demonstrates the frightening ways in which language is itself instrumental in violence, deployed against others or oneself, used to denigrate or destroy.
Were it not for a handful of moving scenes between the narrator and her brother, the book would seem unceasing in its cruelty. But this relationship is the arena in which things feel different, in which possibilities for grace and consolation open up, however compromised.
The formal difficulty of McBride’s novel never feels like an experiment for its own sake, but rather integral in depicting a life largely absent of love or tenderness. Still, reading the book means accepting pain on its own terms, an uncomfortable prospect. As readers we are perhaps too accustomed to deriving easy meaning or ennobling insight from misery. Those willing to put in the effort here will find a hard earned and acute examination of pain, suffering and ultimately, survival.
Eimear McBride will read from "A Girl is a Half-formed Thing" and speak with writer Madeline Miller on Oct. 28, at Porter Square Books.
Charles Thaxton is a freelancer living in Somerville. You can follow him on Twitter here.