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SYMPHONY FOR SINGLE VOICE: The late blooming of Eimear McBride


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.



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.


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..


PREPARE TO BE SURPRISED: the-oh-so-strange world of Donald Barthelme


I confess to being a latecomer to the work of Donald Barthelme. I had read other American classic humourists such as SJ Perelman and HL Mencken but Barthelme somehow slipped through the net. It’s no wonder: Barthelme is very hard to pin down – he can be laugh-out-loud funny one moment, deeply satirical the next, completely absurd or philosophically dense, often in the space of two or three paragraphs. Two storylines exemplify this perfectly: in the first, King Kong, now a professor of art history, climbs through a window to join a drinks party; in the second, the nonsense poet Edward Lear invites friends and acquaintances to witness his death. Reading is not necessarily believing; in Barthelme what you see is not what you get; and what you get can alter almost mystically after a re-read.

Confused? Good. No-one said that reading Barthelme would be easy. I’ve just come up for air after immersing myself in his Sixty Stories for the past month and only now feel ready both to put these thoughts down and to tackle his novels. Writing on Barthelme requires assiduous preparation and a big dose of humility: he has an encyclopaedic grasp of matters temporal and spiritual and he’s widely and deeply read. However, an enlightening interview Barthelme gave The Paris Review in 1981, eight years before his death, which you can read here,  is a good starting point.

It’s almost a relief to acknowledge Barthelme as the quintessential post-modernist. And though such terms usually make me squirm, in his case the nomenclature fits like a glove. How else to explain the mish-mash of styles in different authorial voices, the sorties into slapstick and Existentialism, the quick-fire dialogue that melds into Joycean monologue? If Barthelme was a painter, he’d have to be Magritte, the wicked teaser with the dark underside, the trickster who makes you blink and think twice. And if he were a playwright, then he’d be Tom Stoppard, early on in his career (Stoppard serendipitously wrote a play called After Magritte), where startling, absurd sequences of events are presented to the bemused spectator, only to be revealed as completely logical by the final curtain.

So, to the stories. Or fables. Or pastiches. In Me and Miss Mandible, a 35 year-old man, mysteriously returned to his high school self, contemplates making love to his teacher and assiduously records the progress of his seduction in an elegantly written journal, while tackling fractions and geography. It’s wicked, subversive, supremely funny in a dark and dangerous way. Is it a dream, an adult fantasy? Its power lies in the way the narrative captures and reflects on childhood events from an adult perspective, rather than the absurdity of the situation.

The narrator in I Bought a Little City, however, is more forceful and dynamic. He happily buys the city of Galveston, Texas and then proceeds to change the landscape and infrastructure bit by bit to suit his whims. You can read it as a satirical take on urbanisation and the destructiveness of town planning, nor is the underlying premise of being able to buy a city so far-fetched when you consider the power of today’s mega-sized development groups. In fact, although written in the 1970s, the fable seems almost horribly prescient.

In a complete change of tone, The King of Jazz deftly mimics the riffing of jazz musicians, vying with each other in the rehearsal studio. The story reads like an improv session, setting out a melody, a refrain, a spotlight on a solo and then back to the original theme, all conducted in fast-paced dialogue.

One of my favourite stories, Margins, presents Carl and Edward, two dead-beats living on the fringes of society, as they wander through the streets of Manhattan. Their deeply philosophical and ridiculous dialogue recalls the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. There is a great deal of Beckett in Barthelme –snatches of vaudeville gleam through existential darkness – and there’s a great deal of Nabokov too, in his carefully chosen language, his word play, his authorial voice of linguist and savant.

Where, though, do you draw the line between being clever and too clever by half? Sometimes, I feel the balance is tipped against Barthelme. It would certainly be helpful to have an understanding of 19th and early 20th century philosophy before reading his story Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel – otherwise how do you get the joke? But just as you’re about to wag a finger and chastise Barthelme for unreasonable obscurity, back he comes with The Sandman, a deliciously accessible send-up of psychoanalysis, in which a lover writes to his girlfriend’s shrink proposing she give up her counselling sessions and concentrate on her relationship instead.

Go with the flow. Let Barthelme’s language and surrealism wash over you. Experience him like music, dive into in his bizarre universe. It’s definitely worth it. And it’s one hell of a ride.