25 July 2014
A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride
If you read my other column (Writing Life), you’ll know that I’ve been having a debate about sexism in the book trade. This was sparked off by Joanne Harris’ assertion that the prizes in literature are mostly awarded to men because men dominate the upper echelons of the industry. Further investigation was required and partly to counter this alleged trend I decided that for my book selections for August I would read two prize-winning women novelists. My first choice is A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride.
It comes with great credentials, having won not one but at least two prizes, the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. This last, you may remember, is only open to women entrants and the judges’ panel consists solely of women so I was keen to see what they might come up with.
Oh dear … No beating about the bush, as the modern politician would say, let me be perfectly clear about this and tell you straight away that I hated it. In fact, I’d go further than that and say it wasn’t just a case of not liking it, I ACTUALLY LOATHED IT. Now I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me that it’s a case of sour grapes and I was never going to be disposed kindly towards it simply because it won a prize I can’t go in for. Well that’s nonsense. Believe me, it would be far easier for me to agree with all the endorsements it has acquired and align myself with the critics who’ve heaped praise on it. But I just can’t do that and I have to tell it the way I see it.
There’s no denying that A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING is a ‘difficult’ book. Even the critics who like it agree on that.
McBride's themes and language prove her to be fearless Sinead Gleeson, Irish Times
McBride’s prose … idiosyncratic and the narrative emotionally challenging Listener
But I’m ok with ‘difficult’ books. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner and I love the work of Virginia Woolf. In fact they’re among my favourites. So what’s so difficult about this one?
Well firstly, the prose. For example, here are the first few lines.
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
And no, I haven’t got that wrong, that’s exactly how it is. True, this is the most obscure section, probably because the narrator is a very young child. Later on, it evens out and you gradually get to grips with it but there are times when I simply don’t understand what on earth is going on. I’m told the piece above deals with the narrator’s birth. And I’m expected to read 203 pages like that. It’s hard work.
Now I’m quite prepared to work hard for the sake of the story. But to tell the truth, there isn’t much of a story. I could sum it up in three or four lines. A young girl growing up in Ireland has a brother with a brain tumour. She copes with this by having sexual relations with just about every man she can find. Eventually her brother dies. She commits suicide by drowning herself in a lake. At least, I think she does since there’s another dose of obscure prose toward the end.
I can’t remember the exact point, but at some stage it occurred to me that the purpose of the weird writing is to cover over the cracks and make up for the paucity of the narrative. Because if you tried to tell the story in conventional language you simply wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Strip away the stream of consciousness style and there really isn’t very much left.
But let’s try and do that and deal with the actual content, and in particular the sex. This is my second problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude. Sex, done well, I’m ok with. Once. Or maybe twice, if necessary. But when it’s repeated over and over again, it firstly becomes boring, then nauseating until you get sickened by it. When I reached p149 and the scene where she has sex in the toilet on a train with some random man she’s barely met I actually threw the book across the room and screamed For God’s sake give it a break. I got the point several sex scenes beforehand – it’s how she copes. But it’s so overdone that it becomes meaningless. It took me back to SOHO 4AM and the relentless drinking culture where everyone got ‘shit-faced’. When excess is normality, nothing stands out and there’s a resultant loss of empathy for your character. So by the time our heroine(?) has shagged her uncle for the umpteenth time I’ve completely lost any shred of sympathy I may have had for her, notwithstanding the terrible tragedy which has befallen her brother.
We often hear people say of a book I couldn’t put it down. Well, I must admit, I couldn’t get through it fast enough, although the only reason I kept reading was because I had to write this review. As the blurb on the back cover claims, this is an unforgettable novel. But so are Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, both of which are books we’ve all heard of but never been able to read. I wonder whether this isn’t going to suffer the same fate – lauded by the critics but shunned by the general public.
You may also know that I’m not very fond of ‘conceptual’ art. This is where painterly or other artistic skills are disregarded for the sake of the ‘idea’ behind the work. I wonder whether A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING is the start of a trend in that direction in literature. Following its critical success, are we going to be subjected to more books written in weird and wonderful ways purely for the sake of it? I sincerely hope not.
Meanwhile, I’m yearning to read some decent prose with a discernible plot. Back in June, I was at Castle Howard with relatives and picked up a copy of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. Fingers crossed for some proper writing.