Eimear McBride describes the relationship between a girl and her brother, who suffers from brain damage. Dispensing with commas and written in abrupt yet precise sentences, it is a triumph of technique very much in the modernist tradition
Eimear McBride, Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Galley Beggar Press, 2013.
Eimear McBride's debut tells, with astonishing insight and in brutal detail, the story of a young woman's relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist, to read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator's head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn't always comfortable - but it is always a revelation.
Touching on everything from family violence to sexuality and the personal struggle to remain intact in times of intense trauma, McBride writes with singular intensity, acute sensitivity and mordant wit. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is moving, funny – and alarming. It is a book you will never forget.
Novelist Eimear McBride has won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize for fiction for her debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The £10,000 prize was established by Goldsmiths, University of London, in association with the New Statesman magazine, “to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form.”
McBride wrote her novel nine years ago, but it was rejected by mainstream publishers and was eventually published this past summer by Galley Beggar Press, a small independent imprint set up in 2011 for “writers who have struggled to either find or retain a publisher”. “There was a long time when I thought that I’d never have the book published”, McBride said last night, “and I was depressed by the state of publishing as a result.”
She shared the Goldsmiths shortlist with several much better known novelists, including David Peace, Ali Smith and Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Crace said he was surprised to be considered, since he saw himself as a “traditional writer in every respect”, and felt that he was "working in the oral tradition rather than the writing tradition.”
Many of his fellow shortlisted authors might agree. Philip Terry’s Tapestry, a story collection structured around the making of the Bayeux Tapestry, is written in a phonetic mock Anglo-Saxon dialect addressed to the ear as much as to the eye. David Peace’s Red or Dead, which recounts the career of Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly, is full of incantatory repetitions, whilst Crace’s Harvest, about the impact of enclosures on village life, evokes a dreamlike historicity. Lars Iyer’s Exodus, a forlorn journey through the ruins of the humanities, is similarly dependent on tone of voice for its effects. Ali Smith’s Artful, in which a dead writer returns to a life interrupted, blends essay and story in a way that is both novel and funny.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was the most formally radical work on the shortlist. It describes the relationship between a girl and her brother, who suffers from brain damage. Dispensing with commas and written in abrupt yet precise sentences, it is a triumph of technique very much in the modernist tradition. It has been widely praised by reviewers. Anne Enright called McBride a “genius”. “If every book was as intense as this”, wrote Adam Mars-Jones in a glowing review for the London Review of Books, “reading literature would be even more of a minority pursuit than it is already.” - Jon Day
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride has won the first Goldsmiths Prize, set up this year to "recognise published fiction that opens up new possibilities for the novel form".
McBride's book tells of a young woman's relationship with a brother still afflicted by a childhood brain tumour.
The 37-year-old said it would "encourage writers to be adventurous".
"There was a long time when I thought I would never have this book published," she said at a ceremony on Wednesday held on Goldsmiths' campus in south-east London.
"To have a prize like this is a really wonderful thing."
Born in Liverpool, McBride moved to Ireland when she was two years old and grew up in Mayo and Sligo.
The Irish author wrote her first novel in just six months only to have it turned down by every publishing house she submitted it to.
She then did not look at it again until January this year, sending it out to publishers again without any further revisions.
Using the "stream of consciousness" technique, her book begins with its narrator speaking from inside her mother's womb.
Published by Galley Beggar Press in Norwich, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing beat five other shortlisted titles to win the prize.
They included Jim Crace's Booker-nominated Harvest and Red or Dead, the latest football-related work from The Damned United author David Peace.
"Boldly original and utterly compelling, Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is just the kind of book the Goldsmiths Prize was created to celebrate," said Dr Tim Parnell, chair of the judging panel.
"We are delighted to have found such a remarkable novel in the award's inaugural year." - www.bbc.co.uk/
We were on the sofa one evening and I was typically glued to my book when my boyfriend leaned over and read aloud: Feel the roast of it. Like sunburn. Like a hot sunstroke. Like globs dropping in. Through my hair. Spat skin with it. Blank my eyes the dazzle. Huge shatter. Me who is just new. Fallen out of the sky. What. Then he rolled his eyes and asked me how the hell I was following that. The TV was on. The lamp was making a weird buzzing noise. The dog was loudly slurping her bits. To be perfectly honest, I’ve no idea how I was following A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing. The language is extravagantly jumbled. The pace is disconcertingly broken. The chain of events is peripatetic. Nevertheless, it had somehow managed to draw me in, to hold me. Each tiny sentence was blaring louder than the TV, louder than the buzzing lamp, louder than the slurping. And I understood perfectly; I knew exactly what was happening.
Last week, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize for fiction. The prize, initiated by Goldsmiths University of London, is unlike any other I’m aware of in the UK. According to the official website, it has been established ‘to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form,’ celebrating ‘creative daring’ and ‘the spirit of invention.’ Eimear McBride might have instigated her debut novel intentionally for the prize, had it not been written almost a decade ago. The story of the book’s journey to publication makes the author’s victory all the more significant, albeit bittersweet. Originally rejected by publishers, presumably on the basis that it was too strange, too difficult, it was ultimately taken up by Galley Beggar Press, a small, independent publishing house. In the months which followed its release this summer, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing has been reviewed to widespread acclaim. McBride has been variously declared a genius and her writing compared to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
The book begins with childhood in a gloomy and petty-minded version of rural Ireland. The half-formed girl of the title narrates. She is a reckless, fractious person, and the story is driven by her anger. She has no father to speak of and her mother is a pious, resentful woman. It is the strength of the bond with her elder brother that gives the half-formed girl her humanity. It is to him that every impassioned sentence is directed, even though it’s not with him that she is angry. Took me hot hand to the bathroom then and water on my face. Gentle wiping, saying there now it’s alright. Cleaned blood from me like I saw at school. Head back gulping the thickly flow. Now, you say, we’ll be good. Now we’ll do what we are told. Maybe she’ll forgive us if we’ll be good. Alright? We’ll be good now. After surviving a brain tumour in early boyhood, he is condemned as a dullard, his options stealthily shrinking as the years slip past. Handicap. Handicap. One from back gets the ball. Kicks and aims. It strikes your face. Bleared with mud. And knock you over. Laughter. Laughter. He is the character I cared about, the one I wanted to read on for. The story continues into the narrator’s twentieth year, her voice growing incrementally strained. The end is incalculably devastating.
I went to art school. (This may seem like a somewhat circuitous way of attempting to make a point but please bear with me.) I made colourful, wooden things, but my best friend made remarkably distressing video pieces. She’d perform actions that hurt, and film them. These actions weren’t necessarily physically painful, even still they proved excruciating to sit and watch. For example, in one piece, she used her chin to drag her naked body across a flat-weave carpet. In another, she manically licked tiny stickers off a white wall, and in another again, she bound her hand and forearm in elastic bands and then scrabbled to remove them using only the bound hand. Once I challenged her on what exactly was to be achieved by creating such unsettling work. So long as I made you feel something, she said. Feeling uncomfortable is better than feeling nothing at all. I recalled this conversation many times while reading McBride’s debut.
To say that I ‘enjoyed’ A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing would be lying. I thought it was a spectacular book, but it made me feel thoroughly horrible. McBride won the Goldsmiths Prize last week because, in the words of one of the judges, her debut is ‘boldly original’ and ‘will stimulate a much wider debate about the novel.’ It certainly encouraged me to contemplate the boundaries of traditional prose, and to reconsider the rules of grammar and punctuation. But the book’s greatest feat is that it outstrips the intellect and becomes foremost visceral in effect, a matter of the stomach and soul instead. - Sara Baume
The Irish novelist Eimear McBride’s debut A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is now being released in the US. It comes with a formidable backstory: after nine years of rejections, it was published by a tiny and new publishing house in England, and in the space of just a few months, started winning prize after prize. It has received near-unanimous praise from British reviewers, turning its author into something of a literary celebrity. This success is all the more surprising given the challenges Eimear McBride’s work presents to its readers. The novel’s nameless narrator describes a life emotionally terrorized by two separate traumatic ordeals: her older brother’s struggle with a brain tumor, which first develops when he is two years old, goes into remission, and then returns when he is in his early twenties; and her own sexual molestation at the hands of her uncle-in-law at age thirteen. She reports her experiences in a fragmented prose style brashly defiant of practically all grammatical and syntactical conventions. The novel opens (already famously): “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.”Just in case the prospect of reading such a book does not inspire immediate enthusiasm, it is worth noting that A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is not actually very difficult to get through. After a few disorienting pages, we figure out how to decipher McBride’s idiosyncratic style, we learn to identify “I” with the female protagonist and “you” with her brother; we begin filling in the blanks created by the abrupt sentence breaks, and we discover, just beneath the prickly surface, a logical and chronologically ordered plot tracking the narrator’s growth from young girl to young adult in the fashion of a typical bildungsroman.
In many ways, McBride’s novel is less unconventional than it seems. In particular, its depiction of the narrator’s promiscuous sexual behavior, which begins shortly after she is raped by her uncle, subtly reaffirms a traditional Catholic ideal of female purity. But the linguistic experiments give the novel an appearance of radical iconoclasm, thus disguising its old-fashioned moralism.
Tracing McBride’s influences back to various heavy-hitting modernists, including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, critics so far have categorized her language as stream-of-conscious or pre-conscious, representing, in David Collar’s description, “the form of thought before it becomes articulate speech.” This is an apt characterization of certain passages. At times the narrative does seek to present itself as merely an emanation of the girl’s inchoate mental operations. In other moments, however, we encounter other rhetorical strategies. McBride is not, after all, trying to offer a perfectly accurate transcript of a girl’s thoughts; she’s trying to produce an aesthetically compelling work of literature. The opening, for instance, cannot possibly represent the protagonist’s sense of what is happening, since it covers the period before she was born. It bristles with lyrical energy because of the way it brings together a cacophony of different voices, shifting registers several times in just a few sentences, moving from the cryptically prophetic “in the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say,” to the whimsically reproachful “I’d say that’s what you did,” to the prayerful, “then lay you down,” and finally to the tense and terrified, “they cut you round. Wait and hour and day.” Later, when depicting a surprise visit from her severe and exacting grandfather, the narrator adopts a relatively lucid and grammatical style, as if to suggest the degree to which his presence dictates adherence to rules. “That man was sterner stuff than us. A right hook of a look in his eye all the time.” But when describing some of her sadomasochistic and self-shattering sexual encounters, her voice becomes disjointed and obscure. “Fling rubbish thrown I am am I I. Falt. Where until I crack.” In still other moments, the narrator appears slightly removed from the experiences she is reporting. About her uncle, she observes, “I am warming up the fire to think of him. Of my legs round him. Gloss and embellish. Gasped my name. Broke my heart. My longing longing. Not for him but I think so.” Though she uses the present tense, the person here telling the story seems wiser than the one experiencing the feelings, as if the narrator is watching herself from a distance and thus able to recognize her own delusions and misperceptions.
McBride also makes sure that we hear the voices of many other characters in the text. Although she never uses quotation marks, her keen ear for dialogue results in sentence fragments that frequently capture not so much the way the narrator thinks as the way the people around her talk, the way they fail to finish their own sentences. Her brother, wondering why she has managed to have a better life than his, despite her myriad sexual indiscretions, remarks, “You just have it so easy look at you. What? All the things you did but your life’s always so.” When the mother reports to the narrator a conversation she had with the doctors about the return of her son’s tumor, the two have the following exchange: “I said it was an old one but. I told them it’s not new. Mammy I. Because God you see. I would never survive. He wouldn’t ask that of. He wouldn’t ask me that.” Far from expressing the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, the language in these moments seems to signal its own inadequacy. Though readers can finish these sentences if they want to, the characters don’t bother, because they know that words will not suffice.
It is easy to forget that A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing offers up a variety of perspectives in part because the protagonist’s inner life is so ubiquitous and overpowering, and indeed some readers may find themselves wanting a few more opportunities to escape from it. Her mind tends to oscillate obsessively between two subjects: her brother’s cancer and her own sexuality. Her compulsion to draw connections between the two quickly signals to us that she is not all that well psychologically. In the wake of her rape by her uncle, she begins seeking out sexual encounters with strangers on a regular basis, and these continue, with only a few pauses, until the very end of the book. When she is a teenager, sex serves as a means of gaining popularity in school so she can avenge the ridicule her brother faces from his peers as a result of the mental and physical disabilities caused by his early bout of cancer. But it also serves to distance her from her family, giving her a way to leave home symbolically while her brother stagnates. At the same time, sex enables her to identify with her brother; it is a sign of something evil inside of her, like a tumor. She views it as a sin, one that might invite divine retribution, and allow her to take her brother’s place and assume his suffering. But she also frequently wonders whether the punishment for her promiscuity is her brother’s disease, and thus she blames herself for his illness. At times, she imagines that sex represents not only her crime, but also her punishment. It is for her always a joyless act, and in most cases a violent one. Near the end of the book, in fact, it becomes so violent that she seems to be seeking her own death, attempting to join her brother in an early grave.
However various and complex the connections the narrator draws between her sexuality and her brother’s cancer, the possible forms of experience that she can imagine for herself, after she reaches adolescence, are as a result of her dual preoccupations profoundly limited. Indeed there are only two, and each one comes bound up with a reductive moral category. She is either innocently caring for her brother, sharing his childlike interests, reverting to the pure and good girl that she once was, or she is sinfully and self-destructively engaging in dirty sexual acts devoid of love with strangers. These are the only options that she ever entertains. She occasionally confuses the two, when she has vaguely incestuous thoughts about her brother or when she regards her sexual acts as a form of martyrdom. But the narrator never finds a way to inhabit the everyday world that exists between these two extremes, the world of compromises, forgivable imperfections, and moral ambiguities. Her brother will never reach adulthood; but she can conceive of no realistic or healthy adult way of life for herself. A mature and functional sexual relationship is unthinkable. To have sex is to leave childhood behind is to relinquish one’s purity is to become evil is to deserve punishment is to die.
In this regard, the narrator is in perfect accord with her mother. Though her reckless promiscuity appears to represent a revolt against the latter’s fervent religiosity, it actually allows her to treat her own sexuality as essentially and invariably sinful, a consistent source of guilt and regret. Like her mother, she views her exploits as manifestly depraved and while her use of religious language is never devoid of sarcasm, she judges herself harshly. “Let sin to sinner return. Like me—for I know it very well.” She repeatedly resolves to stop sleeping around, and on several different occasions tries to purify herself through a quasi-baptismal ritual, submerging herself in a lake near her house. She complains bitterly about her mother’s compulsion to impose her religious views upon her brother, expressing relief when he sleeps through the local priest’s attempt to administer the sacrament. But she enlists her brother in another kind of religious narrative, turning him into a Christ-like vehicle for her own redemption. The cognitive regression he experiences when his tumor returns allows her to see him as the young boy she remembers, and it enables her to fantasize that by spending time with him she can reclaim her childhood and erase her sins. Watching him sleep, she thinks, “When we were we were we were young. When you were little and I was a girl. Once upon a time. I’ll mind you mind you. Now. Not then. And I genuflect your quiet bed. I kiss your face. Leave the room. I’m going. Sleeping. Just like you.”
The narrator’s attachment to simplistic moral categories is, of course, completely understandable. Her brother’s disease causes her to regard the prospect of a normal adult life with intense guilt: why should she get to escape their dysfunctional home when he cannot? Perhaps more importantly, her relationship with her uncle makes it impossible for her to view sex as anything other than sinful, dirty, and wrong. He first takes advantage of her when she is only thirteen, but several encounters follow in the years to come, and during all of them she feels complicit. A girl in such a position, particularly one raised in a devoutly Catholic home, would inevitably confront her own developing sexuality with terror, and thus yearn for some means of purification, some safe state of absolute innocence free from the moral stain that she believes she has brought upon herself.
In her introduction to George Egerton’s Wedlock, McBride calls female purity “that most holy and catastrophic of constructs.” But it is clear that the narrator remains, in her own perverse fashion, entirely committed to that construct. She is, as McBride points out in her interview with David Collard, “the product of a system that could offer nothing to women but sexual shame, ignorance and servitude.” A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing dramatizes the grave hazards that attend the narrator’s quest for purity, however sympathetically it renders her motives. In the final scene, when she sinks into a nearby lake to wash away her sins yet again, and to bring herself closer to her now deceased brother, it is unclear whether she will resurface: the purification rite suddenly appears suicidal. And yet, as we reach the ending, we may find ourselves asking whether McBride truly succeeds at critiquing the narrator’s moral sensibility. Is such a critique even possible, when the text seems to hew so closely to the protagonist’s own consciousness?
While McBride has described the ending of the book as a moment of transcendence and self-realization, the narrator’s final dip in the water seems more like a continuation of than an escape from her destructive pattern of behavior. Indeed, her efforts to purify herself and her efforts to defile herself are mutually reinforcing phases of the same pathological cycle. Despite McBride’s purported interest in challenging the narrator’s virgin-whore complex, the novel subtly enlists us as cheerleaders, making it impossible for us to do anything but applaud her attempts to recover her lost innocence. Given the two alternatives afforded by the narrative, what else can we do? If, in other words, it seems like the protagonist has only two options, one of which is to become inebriated and find some menacing sexual predator in a public bathroom or park, and have violent sex with him, thereby putting her own safety at risk, and the other is to go home and help her single mother care for her innocent dying brother, who among us would not root for the safer, more innocent option? Moreover, McBride does everything she can to make the sexual experiences awful—not just for the narrator, but for the reader. Her language is at its most bewildering and unreadable during these moments, and there are so many of them that they begin to feel interchangeable and thus, despite their gruesome character, monotonous. As a result, we find ourselves in the strange position of wishing for more focus on how the brother’s cancer is ravaging his mind and body–a subject far more pleasant (and emotionally satisfying) than the narrator’s grotesquely dysfunctional sex life.
McBride awkwardly forces the two activities that take up the narrator’s time in the latter half of the novel into polar opposites, aligning one with corruption and the other with purity, thus draining each of complexity or plausibility. Practically every minute she spends with her brother before he dies reinforces the idea that this is, for both characters, a retreat into childhood. When she sees him in the hospital he looks to her like he is “five again.” Sitting outside together, they watch some swans and geese, talk about how disgusting it would be to eat a slug, and then conjecture that doing so might give you the power to fly. Later, they look at clouds and imagine making a home up in the sky, like they did “when we were small.” They never have any adult conversations, never try to work out any of their differences, almost never discuss their anxieties about the future. Their relationship in fact fails to develop beyond the one they had as young children. The brother’s brain damage is responsible for his childlike behavior, but it also conveniently allows their time together to serve as an oasis of purity, an innocent refuge radically opposed to the corrupt world of sex and violence that the narrator enters whenever she leaves her brother’s side. Significantly, McBride mostly avoids depicting any significant post-childhood interactions between the two main characters even before the tumor returns. Starting at adolescence, they become distant and uncommunicative. Thus McBride ensures that their time together after his diagnosis is never anything other than a means of recalling their lost youth. Had McBride depicted a mature sibling relationship, it would have complicated the book’s binary moral vision. It would have hinted at a way of leaving childhood behind without automatically surrendering all of one’s virtue and all of one’s joy; it might have suggested a viable mode of adult experience not automatically identified with corruption and damnation.
The book’s narrator is not to blame for her skewed perspective; she is obviously the victim of an environment hostile to a young girl’s healthy psychological development, a central component of which is her criminally sleazy uncle-in-law. But the novel might have offered at least the suggestion of another point of view, so as to underscore the limitations of the narrator’s own. Starting with the opening, McBride does allow herself the freedom to move beyond the protagonist’s immediate thoughts and feelings, and she could have taken greater advantage of this freedom throughout the book. Despite her ear for voices, she never produces any reasonable or sympathetic counterpoint to the girl. Aside from her brother, all of the other characters, including the mother, are fairly reprehensible, and this is yet another means by which the novel give readers no choice but to align themselves with the protagonist’s stunted moral vision.
By the end, the polarity between the narrator’s two modes of life becomes increasingly extreme. Her brother regresses to an infantile state and her sexual encounters become a pure nightmare. When she returns the day after her brother dies to the same park where she had just a couple weeks earlier allowed herself to be the victim of a brutal sexual encounter with a drunken vagrant, we may feel like the viewers of a bad horror movie, wanting to shout at the hapless heroine: don’t go in there! And when she returns home, heavily bruised and battered from the life-threatening sexual assault that she does in fact receive in the park, only to be raped one last time by her uncle as she is trying to clean off the blood, she suddenly seems to be trapped in a novel by the Marquis de Sade. Though these scenes are shocking, they also border on the absurd; one feels perhaps that McBride is trying to pack too much into one twenty-four hour period in order to lend dramatic form to the narrator’s guilty conscience. And while the novel, near the end, invites comparison to the Gothic or the Sadean, the last scene, in which the girl either drowns herself or comes close to doing so, also places it squarely within another somewhat more canonical tradition. That is to say, the narrator represents yet another addition to the long list of female characters, including Hetty Sorel, Edna Pontellier, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, who must be punished for their sexual transgressions.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing may go over quite well with American readers. They have a long history, after all, of cherishing novels about characters in search of some undiscovered Eden where they can reclaim their lost innocence. And if McBride does become a phenomenon in the United States, as she has already in Europe, it would in fact be a good thing. In spite of all the criticisms that might be levied against A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, the jarring poetry of the narrator’s voice is undeniable. For her ability to escape what has become, among a majority of contemporary writers, a stifling attachment to polished form and elegant syntax, Eimear McBride deserves to be applauded. It will be intriguing to see what she does with that ability once she moves beyond the rage for purity that leads the protagonist of her debut novel to ruin. - Timothy Aubry
The inaugural winner of the Goldsmiths Prize has been announced at a ceremony at Goldsmiths' College, University of London. A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, by debut novelist Eimear McBride is a miraculous work of fiction which tells the story of an Irish girlhood - a “stream of pre-consciousness” - in which its young narrator attempts to come to grips with violence, semi-fundamentalist Catholicism and nascent sexuality. The book is written in clipped, imagistic sentences, and begins, like Tristram Shandy, with the narrator speaking from inside her mother’s womb. It is mainly addressed to the narrator's older brother - “You” - who survived a brain tumour in youth and continues to suffer for it.
“In writing the book I was consciously trying to do something new,” says McBride, who was born in Liverpool, raised in western Ireland and now lives in Norwich. “I’m very interested in the modernist tradition. Finnegan’s Wake sort of signalled the end of literature, so I wanted to take a step back and try to find a new way forward.”
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was written in six months when McBride was 27. It was offered to all the usual publishing houses, turned down, and shelved. Nine years later she re-submitted it, unaltered, to Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press, “an old-fashioned publisher for the 21st century”, established in 2011. It was published in June this year. “Small presses are going to be the saving of us all,” Eimear joked.
The main function of literary prizes is to make a lot of noise. Controversies, ceremonies and stickers all lend a sense of occasion where otherwise there would be quiet groups of men and women reading books. For those who love literature, the prize cycle can be maddening - a shallow, grandee-infested, bow-tie-toting marketing ploy - but for the industry, it is essential.
This year the architecture of that world has altered drastically, with new prizes (The Folio), widening parameters (The Booker) and swollen funds (The Wellcome Book Prize re-launched last week with a £30,000 prize pot). Each of these prizes claims to unearth the best fiction published in a given year - but what qualities, specifically, are they looking for?
“Each prize has its own unique flavour,” says Jim Crace, who was shortlisted for the Booker earlier this year and opposes the prize’s new global remit. “The Booker has a special flavour in that it is a Commonwealth prize. We wouldn’t say the Commonwealth Games should be opened up to Brazilians and Americans because we aren’t getting the best javelin throwers.”
The Goldsmiths Prize, which was launched by Goldsmiths’ College, in association with the New Statesman, earlier this year, is a unique undertaking. Blake Morrison, Professor of Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, says the impetus for the prize was both the diverse writing produced at the university, as well as the wider strongly-felt need for a prize that would reward those who “broke new ground”. A prize for books which, to quote the literary critic Walter Benjamin, “establish a genre or dissolve one” – encouraging writers and publishers to “keep, or regain, their nerve.”
Last week the 6 writers shortlisted for the prize gathered in the pale light of a lecture hall to read from their books. Four of them have had their work published by small or independent publishers. None of them reside in the capital. The setting was humble - there was a panel was missing from one end of the stage, exposing the circuitry beneath it - but the audience, and the writers, seemed genuinely thrilled to be part of a project dedicated to rewarding inventiveness, language and newness of form.
“I have never been at such a sexy reading,” said Ali Smith, who was shortlisted for Artful, a collection of essays interpreted by a bereaved, fictional narrator. “It’s fantastic to be present to work that is so alive to the senses.”
The other shortlisted books included Harvest by Jim Crace, a dark, historical fable about the end of the open field system and an elegy for British rural life; Exodus, a riotous, meandering look at the decline of the humanities by philosopher lecturer and author Lars Iyer; Red or Dead, David Peace’s hypnotic, charging account of Bill Shankly’s time as manager of Liverpool Football Club and tapestry by Philip Terry, which tells the story of the nuns who created the Bayeaux Tapestry, the stories they tell each other and the processes of myth-making in which they are involved.
“Up until June all I had hoped was that I’d see the book in print,” McBride told me after the reading. “Everything that’s happened since - it all says to me that there’s an audience out there for work that is more challenging, and I’m really heartened by that. In all the years of rejection I began to wonder, maybe the marketing men are right? I’m really pleased to have it come out in the year where this kind of prize has been launched – it’s fantastic.” - Philip Maughan
imear McBride’s first novel, “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing” (Coffee House), tells a fall-and-fall story that, especially in a traditional Irish setting, can seem familiar fictional material: a departed father, a pious, abusive mother, an errant and blasphemous daughter, a predatory uncle, a death in the family, a God-soaked household busy with meddling priests and vain prayer. Irish fiction and drama have prospered on their ration of curses, drink, and church: family history of this kind would seem to be the nightmare from which we are happy enough not to be awakened.
“A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing” is indeed conventional in places, but in most respects the novel is blazingly daring. For one thing, all the characters are unnamed, and they inhabit an Ireland shorn of dates and obvious historical specificity. (A reference to Walkmans suggests the nineteen-eighties.) Most strikingly, McBride’s novel is written in a dense, interrupted, shattered language, blooming with neologisms, compounds, stretched senses, old words put to new uses. The novel is narrated by the “half-formed” girl of the title, and begins when she is two years old. So McBride’s prose starts by mimicking the visceral, fractured comprehension of a child taking clumsy possession of an adult world. The girl’s voice is frequently crossed by the voices of adults, as in this description of going to church (the narrator is now five):
Get up from that bed. Come on we’re late. Ah Mammy. It’ll do you no harm Madam to show the Lord you care. But I feel sick at mass. None of that please. There’s no fresh air in there. Get you your shoes on we haven’t got time for this.
Grannies rap their hearts. I know that from hot mass when they say Jesus’s name. My feet hurt, knees hurt on the kneeler where someone’s foot left shoe dirt there—sorry will you let me through. All the people up and down saying Christ has died Christ has risen Christ will come again. Mammy I can’t see the altar. Lift me up til my legs go dead.
It’s a dangerous place for smacking mass. Any trying to run up the aisle. Get back here. Climbing through the seats ahead. Sorry. Sit down. Sucking tissues or getting under the pew. That’s a good thump in the back.
McBride has spoken of the moment, when she was in her mid-twenties, that she first encountered “Ulysses.” She told the Guardian that it was decisive. “Everything I have written before is rubbish, and today is the beginning of something else,” she concluded. She wrote this novel fast, in six months, at the age of twenty-seven, and spent the next nine years trying to get it published. Backdated compensation arrived earlier this year, in the form of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction). British reviews have emphasized the novelty of McBride’s style. But to call it a new “style from scratch,” as one did, may be excessive. Apart from the obvious Joycean influence, there is the example of Faulkner, and of Beckett. (“The biddies are having their sup.”) And not a few contemporary writers have bent language, as McBride does, away from formal sense-making and toward private orality: Ali Smith, in “Hotel World”; Peter Carey, in “True History of the Kelly Gang”; Patrick McCabe, in “The Butcher Boy.” What is most original about McBride’s novel is not the style but the use that is made of that style. The perverted uncle and the pious mother may be conventional enough; McBride’s relentless examination of a teen-age girl’s psychic and moral collapse is anything but. When McBride’s prose is most difficult, it is because it is doubly difficult: hard to follow and hard to bear.
Here illness is both in the family and of it. The novel’s narrator addresses her elder brother in the second-person singular. Through a child’s clues and fumbling approximations, we gather that the girl’s brother has had a brain tumor, which appears to be in remission. Surgery has left a scar, and the growth has affected the boy’s vision, speech, and gait. His sister eyes the tumor warily, as if it were a malevolent ghost: “Always in the house, drifting round the stairs or sitting by our puddles little beast in your head. Sleeping happy homed up your brain stem now and fingers only strumming on your bad left side. Don’t you knock your brother’s head. You stumble. Not that bad. And walking into doors a laugh. Is blind eye at side like in eyelid?” At school, the kids ask him how he got his scar, and he says that a knife did it. Although he’s briefly cool—“country boys” are beaten around the head by dads or priests, but usually aren’t attacked by knives—the favor passes, and the teasing begins. Overhearing the taunts and imitations (“He does your voice like a thick tongue”), his sister suffers for him.
At home, the narrator’s mother, a single parent since the departure of her husband, is alternately abusive and tender. Morality is hypocritically stiffened by the rule of the Church. There is much prayer, and visits from charismatic Christians, whom the narrator calls “the holy joes.” When the girl’s maternal grandfather berates his daughter for rearing a child who can’t even recite the Hail Mary, the ashamed mother viciously assaults her son and daughter. Blood flows from the girl’s nose: “Head back gulping the thicky flow.” Throughout these experiences, the narrator observes, gathers, judges. She is wild, unhoused, estranged. Threatened with hellfire, she erupts in her own blasphemous conflagration: “Saying fucker Christ. Into the fields. My bad words best collection. All the things my mother never taught me. . . . I couldn’t bide the loud Do not.”
The narrator, now thirteen, defies “the loud Do not” as loudly as possible: she begins a sexual relationship with her uncle, an affair that she finds both repulsive and satisfying. Armed with new knowledge, she uses her precocious sexual confidence to take revenge on the boys who mock her brother, delighting in their inexperience—“I’ll only touch his tremble cock”—and despising their erotic neediness: “That guzzle and the useless whinging come of them.” Sex is power, defiance, depraved self-harm. McBride’s novel moves briskly, using its interior monologue to compress and frame large changes. Now the girl is leaving home for college, while her brother, always slow at school, gets a job stacking shelves. In the city, away from home, she sees her uncle again, and abases herself by asking him to hurt her. McBride’s prose, superbly alive to the smell and pulse and blood of sex, is courageously unflinching in these passages, and can be painful to read: we participate in a girl’s willed degradation.
Occasionally, the stop-start Joycean intermittence, allied to first-person stream of consciousness, seems an imperfect or even an affected mode for the narration of an entire novel. The eighteen-year-old narrator sounds little different from the five-year-old, for instance. Her tics of not completing her sentences, inverting the syntax, and otherwise mauling grammatical convention can have the odd effect of making her sound like a crazed Irish pirate: “I be new girl. . . . To have to be saying again again where I come from.” Inconsistencies present themselves from time to time. A girl who can produce a phrase like “this healing vast equivocation,” or “But you’ll find other intimations of their special cool” might be assumed to enjoy connecting her phrases into longer units more often than she does—or just saying, “I am the new girl.”
But McBride’s language also justifies its strangeness on every page. Her prose is a visceral throb, and the sentences run meanings together to produce a kind of compression in which words, freed from the tedious march of sequence, seem to want to merge with one another, as paint and musical notes can. The results are thrilling, and also thrillingly efficient. The language plunges us into the center of experiences that are often raw, unpleasant, frightening, but also vital. When the narrator first has a sexual encounter with her uncle, her body is overwhelmed (“Push it home as far up. In that tight spot”), and her senses, too, are overwhelmed: “And breathing deafing out my ears.” Elsewhere, she watches her brother come up the drive, riding his bicycle: “Then on your blue bike you come breakily up the drive.” The double sense she draws from the adverb “breakily” makes the performance seem ungainly (lots of braking) and a bit perilous (liable to break). Or see what the narrator wrings out of the word “digs,” in the following passage, in which she tells us about her pursuit, in college, of sex at all costs:
Crumbs on the carpets and insects bite my back I don’t care for. Nicer is not what I am after. Fuck me softly fuck me quick is all the same once done to me. And washing in their rusted baths and flushing brown with limescale loos amid the digs of four a.m. before I put my knickers on.
“The digs of four a.m.”—a place, and a state of being, the very pit of the night. There are many wonderful new usages like this, and many new words (or new to me)—“plomp” (“a plomp load of books”), “harlotting,” “forlorning,” “wilter,” “miracling.” Irish writers can sometimes be lured by the treasures of their wordy inheritance into flashy spending, but McBride isn’t just blarneying. On the contrary, she gets her words to work hard for her. When the narrator uses “miracling,” she seems to reach for it in desperation, as if it were the only possible word. Her brother has been hospitalized once more, and she is on the phone to her horrible uncle, who is blandly consoling her, saying that things will be all right. She cries out, to herself, “Can he see all about me patients miracling well?” We think of this kind of effect as modern, or modernist, but it is also ancient. “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff, for I am famished,” Esau says of the lentils for which he sells his birthright to Jacob (in Robert Alter’s faithful translation). McBride’s prose—“Head back gulping the thicky flow”—is, in marvellous ways, continuous with this visceral tradition.
The narrator is away at college when her brother’s illness returns. There are doctors, the hospital, a priest. As the novel moves steadily toward its inevitable dénouement, the reader perhaps feels the coaxed direction of narrative convention. But, again, the conventional is enriched by the extraordinary passion of the novel, the writer’s direct access to feeling, and the rigor of the language. Eimear McBride’s own brother died of a brain tumor; she has rightly been at pains to emphasize the fictionality of her novelistic account. Yet the force of lament at the novel’s close seems to carry a special authorial impress, remembrance painfully mixed with invention.
The rituals of mortality focus the novel’s blasphemous energies, as the narrator’s hostility toward belief collides with the certainties of the community. At a wake, the narrator creeps upstairs (while downstairs “they’re merging on the fruitcake”) and sits beside the open coffin of her hated grandfather, “the bastard.” The corpse excites impiety: “So Granda. I don’t talk to the dead. So now. That’s strange to see him here. Dead. I could give him a kick if I liked. . . . I could undo his flies for shame.” Late in the novel, the narrator sits at the bedside of her ailing brother. The priest has given him the sacrament of the sick, anointed him with oil and drawn the sign of the cross on his face. The oil is supposed to comfort, and to cleanse the mortal believer of sin. But what is his sin? Less angrily than with her grandfather, but full of heretical decision, she waits until the priest has left the room, and wipes the oil from her brother’s skin. “For what need? You’re more perfect than you were before. I’ll wash your face of sacrament. Let sin to sinner return. Like me—for I know it very well.” She transfers the sin from the sinless to the sinner, from him to her. This is as close as she can get to taking on his illness, to putting herself in his place: a moment of devout reversal that has its own sacramental tenderness. - James Wood