"I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for walks. Long ones in the country. I offer up. I offer up in the hedge. I met a man I met with her. She and me and his friend to bars at night and drink champagne and bought me chips at every teatime. I met a man with condoms in his pockets. Don’t use them. He loves children in his heart. No. I met a man who knew me once. Who saw me around when I was a child. Who said you’re a fine looking woman now. Who said come back marry me live on my farm. No. I meat a man who was a priest I didn’t I did. Just as well as many another would. I met a man. I met a man. Who said he’d pay me by the month. Who said he’d keep me up in style and I’d be waiting when he arrived. No is what I say. I met a man who hit me a smack. I met a man who cracked my arm. I met a man who said what are you doing out so late at night. I met a man. I met a man." --Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
I’m about halfway through Eimear McBride’s edgy novel of youth A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. My friend Duncan Chesney, who’s read more grim modern European writing that I’ll ever read, recommended it as the stand-out book of his last six months of reading. I had to take it up.
McBride creates a sinewy idiom all her own to narrate this work. As Duncan put it: “There’s hardly a grammatical sentence in the whole book.” That’s an exaggeration, but certainly there are many pages where one has to work through a kind of clipped telegraphy--a whole new English McBride has created. It’s a jarring and pleasurable labor. Her prose hews halfway between speech and something like stream of consciousness, integrating dialogue with a deep and hard-hitting transcription of a young self in perilous balance. It's a rare accomplishment--rare in that such aggressive handling of language doesn’t usually succeed as it does here. Though McBride isn’t aping Joyce or Beckett, she does continue obliquely in something of an akin Irish tradition. But her Irishness is different: a suffering and fighting feminine voice very much its own.
I’ve read nothing on McBride or her background, deciding just to read the book first. I’ve only checked her age, to see what generation of writer I’m reading. She’s now 38, but wrote the novel in her late twenties. It apparently took her seven years to get the book published, the sort of trek that many masterpieces have had to undergo before being noticed.
I’ve no idea how autobiographical McBride’s book is. It is however a Bildungsroman of sorts, the tale of a girl growing up in a small town, raised in a household with no father, suffering through school as the younger sister of a brother with learning disabilities (the mother refuses to acknowledge this fact and so very likely makes things worse for all involved). The family is Catholic, though at first not very devout.
Eros is a wrenching force in this book. At age thirteen the narrator is introduced to sex by an uncle visiting from out of town, an experience not so much traumatic as awakening, leading her to use her newfound knowledge to rebel. She proceeds with her rebellion by throwing herself into one random sexual encounter after another--rough trysts which both liberate and degrade her. The idiom McBride has invented is brilliantly suited to the mix of trauma and release such a rebellion entails.
I’m only half finished with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, but the newness of this prose pushed me to write out some reactions forthwith. It isn’t every day one is moved by something new in narrative.