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SYMPHONY FOR SINGLE VOICE: The late blooming of Eimear McBride

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A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING By Eimear McBride          Text, $22.99

Every so often, you come across a “first book miracle” – the novel, turned down by every publisher, that is finally picked up and becomes an international sensation. Last year, that novel was A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by first-time novelist Eimear McBride. Written in an intense burst of creativity when she was 27, she spent the next nine years hawking it around the UK publishing circuit, but the answer was always the same: McBride showed great promise, but the book, written in an experimental and poetic stream of consciousness, was considered too difficult to sell.

That was until McBride submitted her novel to Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press, established in 2011, which is committed to new work. What followed was a literary coup de théâtre. On publication, ‘A Girl’ was both critically acclaimed and snapped up by the public. Anne Enright called McBride “a genius”. The novel won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, offered by London University. Now it’s finally published in Australia.

Born in Liverpool, Eimear McBride was raised in western Ireland and now lives in Norwich. It’s not hard to spot her prime influences – the spicy vernacular of Joyce, the dark imagery of Beckett haunt each page. With lilting phrases, humour, bleakness, she’s an Irish original through and through. “In writing the book I was consciously trying to do something new,” says McBride. “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.”

The result is a novel that is sometimes difficult to read, often opaque and requiring re-reading. McBride pummels and pounds her sentences, stretches, inverts, teases out language till it re-forms into her own particular syntax. It takes a while to settle into her jagged sentences, her backwards-forwards glancings. But ‘A Girl’ rewards and ripples with its own music. You’re in the narrator’s head in every line. The novel is a tone poem written in interlocking movements, a symphony for single voice.

Take this passage, from early on in the novel:

“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 stairs fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead.  In my eyes. Nettle them. Mammy. Yelling, Lady come back or you’ll get what for.  A mad goat I’ll be. Rubbing bubbles. Worse and worse and hotter than mints I’ll turn my nose at. Always get me. In the hall. You by wormy bit of hair. Lug me rubbing ankle skin up the stairs. She in suddy ocean.”

The story itself reminds me of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls – a young woman’s coming of age in a stifling Irish Catholic community, where religion curbs spontaneity and sexuality is clouded by recrimination. McBride’s heroine is never named. With no male role models to guide her (her parents are separated), her uncle by marriage seduces her at the age of 13. This early onset of sexuality triggers a chain reaction of promiscuity. She’s the girl the boys touch up at school, who goes home blind-drunk with guys at parties, the one pious neighbours mutter about behind twitching curtains. Sex is a source of power, but it’s also coupled with self-loathing. So far, such rites of passage and small town prejudices are familiar fodder.  What sets the novel apart is the narrator’s personal circumstances.

The novel is addressed to “You” – the narrator’s much-loved older brother, companion and protector, who had a brain tumour as a child. He’s never made a full recovery – clumsy, slow to learn at school, the only job he can find is packing shelves. In his early 20s, the tumour returns, more aggressive than before. Now his family have to confront the finality of his death.

“Silent.

Breath.

Lungs go out. See the world out.

You finish that breath. Song breath.

You are gone out tide. And you close. Drift. Silent eyes. Goodbye.

My. Lllllllllllllllllll. Love my. Brother no.

Silent.

He’s gone. He’s gone. Goodbye.”

The poetry here lies in the simplicity as much as the imagery. What is not said makes this passage even more affecting. Throughout the novel there are leitmotifs of water, drowning, getting lost in dark places, becoming dirty, becoming cleansed. McBride’s power lies not only in her virtuosic turn of phrase but in highly visual set pieces throughout the novel. There’s a filmic quality to the writing, particularly in the sex scenes, which are raw, violent and abusive.

It’s clear that the narrator is suffering not only from an ever-present Catholic guilt, but from survivor’s guilt too. In many ways, she’s her brother’s polar opposite, the bright university student while he flounders at home in menial jobs. It’s a difference she feels keenly and her guilt skewers like a blade. Seeking out harmful relationships and physical pain stills her torment for being the sibling allowed to survive – for a while.

He hits hard. I say don’t be done. Don’t be done. I don’t want this he says I don’t want. Just till my nose bleeds and that will be enough. So he hits till I fall over….Jesus he says. I feel sick. But I’m rush with feeling…..In fact I am almost best.”

This desire to obliterate herself leads to the final scenes, a vicious rape in the woods soon after her brother’s death, recounted blow by horrifyingly graphic blow. It is her family’s reaction to the attack, and her Mother’s lack of empathy and understanding, that bring about the novel’s inevitable conclusion.

The title is arresting, and it’s been pointed out that despite her psychological fragility, this girl is not deformed, but half-formed. Throughout the novel the narrator harks back to her childhood, when brother and sister laughed, played and supported one another. It’s as if he were her other half, her second self and without him she is indeed ‘half-formed’. This makes the ending especially poignant, as the reader shares the extent of her loss.

The question now is how can McBride follow this tour de force? ‘A Girl’ is such a one-off,  it would be difficult to replicate and indeed, any novel written in similar style would suffer unfairly by comparison. McBride, in interviews, appears gratified but somewhat bemused by all the hoo-ha. All she lets slip is that she’s “working on something”. That ‘something’ is now guaranteed publication and the bidding wars will be astronomical.

I’ll be speaking to Eimear McBride in a forthcoming edition of my Pageturners podcast on 3MBS..


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NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: Biography’s facts and fiction

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THE LAST WORD by Hanif Kureishi             Faber & Faber, $29.99

Several years ago, when I was working as a feature writer for a Sunday newspaper, I was asked to interview a famous singer who was making a comeback after years out of the spotlight. My brief was succinct: “Dish the dirt”, my editor said. “We’ve heard all these rumours – drugs, teenage girls. Find out if it’s true”.

When I met my subject – a mild-mannered, nervous, chain-smoking man – I felt he deserved a chance. I couldn’t bring myself to slam him for the sake of sensationalism. Instead, I wrote a civil, factual piece. The editor was livid. The article was published but I never wrote for that newspaper again.

Scruples and biography don’t mix, and salaciousness feeds our ever-growing appetite for preying on the famous. This is the premise for Hanif Kureishi’s new literary satire, The Last Word. Here, Harry, a young biographer on the make, is urged by his editor Rob to write an “extreme biography”, of Mamoon Azam, an elderly, celebrated Indian-born writer, now living in England. Mamoon’s work is no longer selling. A titillating biography, crammed with lurid anecdotes exposing his sexual depravity might rekindle interest.

“That clever old sly fox Mamoon might seem dull and dead to you”, says Rob. “He comes across as someone who has never knowingly given pleasure to a woman, someone who has never loved anyone more than himself… He has been a dirty bastard, a liar, an adulterer, thug, and possibly, a murderer.” “How common is this knowledge? “You will make it known”.

Harry seems the perfect fit to write a scandal sheet. He has little, if any, conscience, having previously published a biography of Nehru “lightly spiced with interracial copulation, buggery, alcoholism and anorexia”. Over the ensuing months, Harry spends time at Mamoon’s gracious country house. He meets Liana, the writer’s Italian, horny, clothes-obsessed second wife, uncovers journals written by Mamoon’s first wife who committed suicide; he travels to the United States to meet a scorned mistress with a taste for revenge, to India to meet Mamoon’s family. Harry gets caught up with the hangers-on of the household, hidden secrets of servants, sexual intrigue and the unravelling of his own private life. Along the way, the blond public schoolboy and the wily elderly émigré joust and parry in the elegant surrounds of the estate. Mamoon, though infirm, is nobody’s fool.

On publication in Britain, the media couldn’t help but point out similarities between Kureishi’s plot and the real-life biography of the grand old man of literature, Nobel prizewinner, VS Naipaul, by Patrick French. Invited to Naipaul’s country retreat, French penned a less than flattering account of the writer as a snob, racist, adulterer and frequenter of prostitutes. Indeed, it’s hard not to see similarities between Naipaul and Mamoon, with his passion for cricket, glamorous women and his “hooded eyes” and Kureishi has admitted to trading off the resemblance in a recent BBC interview.

But that’s not the point. Kureishi relishes scenes of cat and mouse between Harry and Mamoon, as truth and fiction begin to blur. Mamoon is a consummate story-teller who may well be reinventing episodes of his own life. Harry writes his book. But when Mamoon publishes a new work, obviously based on his relationship with Harry and Harry’s girlfriend, the facile, flaky fashionista Alice, the themes of “stories within stories” come full circle. Who, Kureishi asks, really has the last word?

It’s a precarious state of mind Kureishi obviously identifies with. In a recent interview, he was quoted as saying that all media interviews and publicity become works of fiction in their own right. “Over a period of time you work up an account of yourself and one day you find you even believe it. Finally, it has become the story of your life.”

This account of reality has also become a byword for Kureishi’s oeuvre. After the publication of an early novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, his sister accused him of “selling the family down the line.” Later, his novel Intimacy, an account of a man leaving his wife and twins, eerily paralleled Kureishi’s own family life when he left his partner and twin sons.

Such duality unsettles. Even the title has more than one meaning: The Last Word may well be Kureishi’s last book because, aged 60 this year, he’s implied he may not write another work of fiction. And on the similarities go: Mamoon has sold all his papers to an American university; Kureishi sold his last year to the British Library. Kureishi teaches creative writing – this could be Harry’s fate if his biography doesn’t sell. At the end, you wonder whose version of events is the more fabricated, Mamoon’s, Harry’s, or any of the other characters in the novel, and whether objective truth exists.

It’s a savagely funny book. Kureishi’s a master of punchy one liners. “The past is a river, not a statue”. “A writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family”. “You’re in the remembering business,” Mamoon tells Harry during one of their interviews, “I particularly like it when you remember things which never happened.”

There are also delicious set pieces, such as a celebratory dinner with Mamoon’s ageing fans, zimmer framing their way into the dining room (all armed with complimentary copies of his works), at which the writer affirms the decline of Britain, the end of mankind and toasts a “happy apocalypse”.

Yet there are longueurs, too, interminable exposition and pages of talk, talk, talk. Kureishi tends to be too clever by half. By working so hard to deliver wit on every page, he sacrifices the flesh and blood of character. True, the novel’s a satire and satire demands  stereotypes. But none of his people feel or sound credible, especially the women who remain shallow, hysterical, obsessed by sex and shopping. Plus, the characters are almost all pretentious or unlikeable. This is not a book you’d care to reread anytime soon.

Far more interesting are Kureishi’s pointed views about the tensions in British race relations, the rivalry between young and old, the precarious state of literature, the frivolities of the digital age. This almost, almost raises the level of the novel from biting comedy to a work that’s greater than the sum of its parts.


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An ever-turning wheel – Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

 

 

 

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday     $27.99

Life After Life was published early in the year and is a book I have intended to read for a while. And as we approach the end of 2013, it seems appropriate to review a book which comments on death and rebirth, offering alternate slices of life and a “Sliding Doors” approach to narrative and character. It’s especially meaningful to me, as I’ve just written a play in which six diverse characters confront their mortality and attitudes to death in very different ways.

Most books have a composite set of characters at their centre. And even if the novel progresses through flashbacks, jumbled juxtaposition of time frames or mixed points of view, there is usually some kind of progression in which we view them holistically.

Atkinson turns traditional story-telling on its head. Her heroine Ursula Todd (interestingly, ‘tot’ is the German word for ‘dead’) dies over and over again. First, she’s a baby in 1910, strangled with her mother’s umbilical cord one freezing winter’s night; we then see her as a toddler when she dies again, victim of a freak accident. A few years later Ursula is resurrected, but drowns helplessly on a family seaside trip; she succumbs to the great Spanish ‘flu pandemic of 1918. Other incarnations see her murdered by a psychotic husband and killed in the London blitz of 1942.

Her lives riff and intertwine like musical variations on a theme, and indeed the novel has a jazzy, improvised feel with leitmotifs abounding – many chapters end with the words “darkness fell”. Snow provides the silent background for both death and rebirth.  In one life, the teenage Ursula is raped, becomes pregnant to her brother’s American friend and undergoes a backstreet abortion; yet in another life, a bashful kiss is her only physical interaction. One episode’s full stop is another episode’s near-miss or ellipsis.

In each of her lives Ursula grows a little older, before succumbing to the next, inevitable, conclusion. This drives the novel forward and delivers surprise after surprise. Some are harder to swallow than others –  in one of her many existences, Ursula befriends Eva Braun in Germany and then assassinates Hitler in a Berlin café.  We last see Ursula in the 1960s – as such, the novel sweeps panoramically through much of the 20th century, tackling the shifts of political and social change.

The one stable element is the family home, Fox Corner, an idealised portrait of British upper middle class life. It is a sanctuary, a still point in a turning world that threatens with danger and unpredictability. Atkinson, who won the Whitbread for her early novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum and is well-known for her crime novels, Case Histories, writes with elegance and restraint, capturing the domestic flavours of everyday life as well as the tragedies of war. A poached egg is “a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die”. Ursula lives through the London bombings, as a fire warden, and in the morgues is sickened by the “macabre jigsaw” of limbs and torsos, “the crushed fragments of human lives, never to be whole again.” Ursula in each life lived, is also attempting to reach some kind of wholeness.

The alternate endings, both happy and sad, allow the reader to contemplate Ursula’s fate through diversely refracted lights. This is exciting, innovative, and takes storytelling into a fresh medium of possibility.  Less satisfactory is Atkinson’s attempts to explain the rationale for this process. At one point Ursula’s mother, frustrated at her daughter’s strange behaviour and frequent flashes of déjà-vu, trots her off to a psychiatrist, Dr Kellet. Subsequent discussions between doctor and patient about reincarnation, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, and whether it’s possible to live your life again and again “until you get it right” appear forced, as if justifying the novel’s structure and narrative drive.

Readers invariably care for the characters they get to know and worry about what happens to them. The question has to be asked whether readers  empathise with a heroine whose life paths constantly morph into different realities. It’s to Kate Atkinson’s credit and a tribute to her skill as a writer that we believe completely in Ursula, life after life.


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The New Outlier Fiction: a look at Evie Wyld

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After The Fire, A Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyld             Published by: Vintage, $19.99

One of the fascinating aspects of Granta’s Twenty Under 40 list is the range of countries from which the young novelists originate. Yes, the list features writers who were born in Britain, but there are also writers born in many other countries including India, Africa, Australia and Canada who now live in Britain. Over the next few months, I’ll try and look at a number of these young writers. Some, like Zadie Smith, are well-established and need no introduction. Others are new to me and I’m looking forward to exploring them.

Twenty years ago, Granta’s list was predominantly male with few foreign-sounding names among them. The 2013 list has more women than men and its sheer cosmopolitan quality shows the literary revolution that has occurred over this time. Today’s young writers explore the world through a well-travelled lens. They may be called “Best of Young British” but their formative experiences often lie elsewhere. This brings a richness to their writing but also a sense of displacement. Do the writers feel more at home in Britain or their birth country?  Is home more than once place? Or are they still searching for a place to call home?

These existential dilemmas are often explored through their writing. In a recent Guardian Books podcast, Michelle de Kretser was interviewed about her Miles Franklin prizewinning novel, Questions of Travel. Born in Sri Lanka, she now lives in Sydney and admitted to feeling neither particularly Sri Lankan nor Australian. She is both a part of, and no longer a part, of two continents. She writes, she says, with an outsider’s gaze that has learned to categorise and appraise many countries. This strange limbo state has no precise term in English but the French would call it dépaysement, alienation from an intimate connection with place.

It gives rise to what I’ll call Outlier Fiction, and I suspect we will see more and more of this as Generations Y and Next continue to publish. It’s evident in one of Granta’s Best of the Under 40s,  Evie Wyld. Her  first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, published in 2009, is set in Australia, in particular the rugged border between Queensland and New South Wales.  Her second book, All The Birds Singing, which was released a few days ago, alternates narratives between a sheep station in Australia and a bleak island off the British coast.

Though born and living in Britain, Wyld has an Australian mother and since childhood has frequently travelled to Australia to see her family. What strikes the reader of After the Fire…. is the vivid technicolour brushstrokes with which Wyld paints the Australian bush. You feel the heat, the barren landscape, the wide sweep of miles and miles of dusty, dirt roads. For someone who isn’t a native Australian, this is an extraordinary tour de force.

In an interview with Granta earlier this year, Wyld commented that she was able to write so convincingly because being away from Australia allowed her to uncover a narrative freedom she couldn’t have developed if she lived there. She was able to write more easily about Britain when living in Australia, she confessed, and about Australia when living in Britain. This surely, is a characteristic of Outlier Fiction – the cultivation of distance and objectivity that gives rise to a heightened sense of awareness, allowing the writer to conjure an unique image of place because of their status as outsider. And yet the danger here is that this very distance may give rise to a distortion of the truth, a personal fiction that may not be unbiased.

In After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, two narratives intertwine. Frank moves to a ramshackle shack off the east coast of Queenland that once belonged to his grandparents. Escaping from a broken relationship, he’s trying to rebuild his life in the wilderness. In alternating chapters, we also meet Leon, forty years earlier, and follow him through Aussie suburbia, then as a soldier after he’s drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. As the novel weaves their lives together, the reader discovers the link between the two men and the ties that bind them.

The assuredness with which Wyld adopts the male voice is striking. There is blood and violence here, the horror of war, desperation, loneliness. Wyld mimics Aussie demotic speech perfectly. Her men are rough and unsophisticated, as unpredictable as the weather and the bleak and barren landscape in which they live. At the same time, she paints a highly unflattering portrait of Australia: in the space of a few chapters, we’re presented with wife beaters, incest, rampant drunkenness, bigotry, blatant racism and child abuse. This is a country infested with huge, malign spiders, biting insects and dangerous sharks. Reading this book, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole of Australia was, as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once put it, the “arse end of the world”.

As a city dweller, I admit this is not the Australia I personally live in, and it isn’t a portrait of a society I recognise, although I suspect isolated, rural communities share similar problems the world over. Unsurprisingly, Wyld hasn’t been adopted by the Australian establishment (notorious for figuring any excuse to claim a rising star’s Australian roots) as one of its own. This is especially notable as many ex-pats, including Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Peter Carey, who haven’t lived in Australia for years, are still trumpeted as being “Australian” in our press.

As an exponent of Outlier Fiction, Wyld’s cool analysis may lead her to over-sensationalise occasionally. But she is also able to raise  the curtain on unseemly aspects of Australian society that we’d prefer to forget. I’m intrigued to see how she paints Australia again in her new novel. (Interestingly, the novel she is currently working on is set entirely in Britain.) And I will be eagerly comparing her to many of the other novelists on the Twenty under 40 list, to see if they share her divided, distanced view of what was, and is, no longer home.

Read it: For a haunting evocation of the Australian landscape by a powerful new voice in fiction