Eimear McBride’s novel is the first winner in the new incarnation of what was formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction (1996–2006 and 2009–12) and the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2007–08). I think of it as the Man Booker specifically for women, though of course women can win the Man Booker. Lest I leave you gender-confused, It’s a distinguished award and let’s leave it at that. An award that comes with a big cash money wad to the tune of nearly $ 60,000 in Colonial Dollars. That’s £ 30,000.
a glowing Eimear McBride
Curiosity about how the new prize would judge the “best” of women’s fiction compelled me to read this year’s winner. I was also swayed by the other honors McBride has gotten: Goldsmiths Prize, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.
All for a first-time novelist?
I’m mixed on my feelings about the book. On the one hand, I can see its theme of the ruination of sexual abuse is portrayed in all its horrific reality. On the other, I’m conflicted as to how I feel about the writing style. Trying to describe it is difficult. It compares to stream-of-consciousness, though I can’t put a finger on the reason I hesitate considering it the purest example of the form. Better I should quote a passage:
“And we go on travels. Great worlds to our minds, like interrail from here to there. Slum it downtown Bucharest eat cheese in Paris fall in love. Take boats in Venice to Constantinople by the train. Where speak good Russian Portuguese. Know people. Flit around the world to New York parties. Kandahar. We don’t know the world but want and on the very tip of tongue I’d fly away if I could. With her. It is our love affair. How we’d be. Who we think we are beneath royal blue jerseys and pleated skirts. Icon in the making me someone new tell every single one at school to go to fucking hell.”
– A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
Lacking a more accurate term, I suppose I’d use stream-of-consciousness, though still I find it more an adaptation all McBride’s own. So there would be another reason to consider honoring the novel. And it never breaks form, never veers from one exacting and purposely fractured style. Whether I personally find it enjoyable or not is not the issue: is it effective, is it pure and is it unique. That’s what matters.
The story is rip your beating heart out of your chest, throw it dripping onto the pavement and stomp on it awful. A father deserts his family after their young son is diagnosed with a tumor that has grown roots in his brain. An operation slows the progression, giving him a much longer life than I imagined he’d have, but leaves him partially brain damaged. At school they’d refer to him as slow, which is so politically incorrect but true. He falls behind his grade level and struggles academically and with his motor skills, becoming frustrated with his own clumsiness and inability to function academically, acting out both at school and home. Some of his anger is possibly due to what the surgeons had to remove from his brain, perhaps also the tumor itself growing by increments.
His older sister is viciously raped by their uncle at a young age, her self-destructive reaction to turn to drinking, drugs and a prodigious amount of humiliating, often brutal sex with strange men. And, which is perhaps even harder to bear as the reader, she continues having sex with her uncle when the opportunity arises.
What I fear most is reader judgment on her character due to her warped attraction to the perpetrator who took her virginity. There is no logical nor rational reaction to having been sexually abused; despising her for anything she does or becomes is blaming the victim. Nothing is natural about a grown man forcing himself on a child and there is no way for her to process this that makes sense on any level.
Hatred of herself, blaming herself for something not her fault turns off the logical thought process. Its extremity is shown in a manner very ‘in your face, look what happens when a child is abused’ and I understand it’s horrifying to read. The character herself becomes unlikable, which is precisely the point: she hates herself. Eimear McBride’s writing shines when describing something so depraved and just horrendous to contemplate. Readers who use this as a reason not to “like” the book are missing the point entirely and judging the author unfairly. It’s precisely this she does best, peeling back the lid of the horror we’re so afraid to look at, revealing the hell of it in great detail.
I’m left with great admiration for the author’s skill, grudgingly granting the style – which wore a bit thin with me sometimes – fits the turmoil of this narrator. She’s broken from abuse and her little brother is dying slowly. Her father, who should have been there to protect her, has left them. Her mother calls her a whore, losing patience with both her children, smacking them around and verbally abusing them when she breaks down – another aspect which could be analyzed as to its realistic reaction to what her character is suffering – not to mention her echoing of what many readers will think of the girl, that she’s a worthless whore.
It’s all tremendously ugly as a story but realistic. It’s just difficult reading, setting off all sorts of triggers inside us. But that’s the point and after writing it out I believe I understand why Baileys chose A Girl is a Half-formed Thing as the recipient of its first award. It’s unlikely to be popular on a mass level and readers will say awards like this are only given to obscure books, when the fact is they’re given to writers operating at the height of their very impressive powers, only seen when broken apart and looked at for style and form.
Ultimately, I am very impressed by Eimear McBride and look forward to what she produces in the future.