Since its launch in 1996 the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has been celebrating the very best full length fiction written by women. With previous winners including Carol Shields, Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith, Rose Tremain, and A.M. Homes the prize has become one of the most respected and successful literary awards throughout the world. It celebrates ‘excellence and originality,’ in women’s writing.
It’s a prize that makes the publishing and literary world take notice, which is ironic really given publishers spent ten years ignoring the 2014 winner Eimear McBride. Had it not been for a chance meeting with a bookshop owner in Norwich, McBride’s debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing may never have been published, let alone win any prestigious awards.
McBride, who grew up in Ireland before moving to the UK, wrote the novel when she was 27 and then spent more than a decade trying to get it published. It wasn’t until she met Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press that she found someone willing to take it on.
The novel is a fast-paced stream of consciousness that is better read in a few sittings to fully experience the intensity of the prose. The reader is plunged into the world of a young unnamed narrator who is trying to make sense of a life under the shadow of sexual abuse and illness. It is a story about the relationship between brother and sister, and also the strained relationship between mother and daughter. The latter is a relationship of conflict and abuse with the daughter fighting against her mother’s and society’s obsessions and ideals.
‘I’m raging. I’m spitting …I’m flooding the hallway up those stairs to my room see their bags shout fuck off through the floor so they’ll hear, they’ll hear me and know what I mean. You snobs. Bastards. I’ll say the bad words I have.’
The novel addresses themes of religion and sin, with both being taken to the extremes – it is after all set in 1980s Ireland. The novel is intense. Tender in parts. Tragic – definitely. You are in the world of the narrator, and it’s a world that makes little sense. It’s ‘not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, it is a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist.’
It’s not comfortable reading. In fact, there are moments that are so uncomfortable you may want to look away,
‘Right then. Right the pair of ye. Do you see what you’ve done? Are you pleased with yourselves? What did I say about forward rolls? What did I tell you about keeping your knickers covered? She is jumping up the stairs. Take one and two. Crack my eyes are bursting from my head with the wallop. Blood rising up my nose. Drips my head forward. Drip of that. She gets my hair. Listen. To me. Listen. What you’ve done. Shaking me smack and smack my head. Dirty brat. Shivering. Sharp with rage. Get away from me and push me over to the banisters.’
It may be hard to watch, but there is something so captivating and enthralling about the novel that you stay with it, with the vulnerable narrator, inside her head, when what she is experiencing is dark and difficult to accept. You may emerge startled but the experience is worth it.
With the first person stream of consciousness, the influence of James Joyce is obvious in McBride’s writing. The fragmented language may not make complete sense, but this is where the novel gains its impact. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing may be a dark and difficult story but its language and style make it all the more powerful. It’s clever. It’s startling. It’s original. It’s rare a first-time novelist can make such an impact, but McBride does just that. The language, voice and style are authentic. McBride is pushing boundaries, going against conventions. The effect is quite superb.
Despite McBride’s young age when she wrote it, you get the feeling that you’re in the company of an experienced writer, a writer who knew what she wanted to write, and was not prepared to change anything just to get it published, even when the rejection slips were piling up. There’s definitely something to be admired about that. It may have taken ten years, but eventually the literary world has taken notice. In McBride we have a writer of originality and talent, a writer who deserves to be recognised alongside the very best in women’s contemporary fiction.