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Experimental language masks what is quite a conventional novel

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing

Eimear McBride

Galley Beggar Press, €15.75

This debut novel by Liverpool-born, west of Ireland-raised, Norwich resident Eimear McBride, has been garlanded with glowing reviews in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. These notices tended to emphasise the book's originality and experimentalism. However, what inventiveness or exploration there is resides in an obtuse use of language and idiosyncratic punctuation, which disdains the preposition, enjoys scrambled syntax, and fairly eschews the common comma (although I did spot a total of two in the course of the 203 pages). Beneath this enigmatic playfulness, the subject matter and narrative trajectory remain tediously conventional.

The story, told in the first person singular and addressed to the second person singular, concerns an unnamed female narrator and her unnamed older brother (every character in this novel is unnamed). There are a couple of years between them, and the tale begins when she is two and he is four, ending when our girl is 20. There is a strong bond between them, oscillating from embarrassment to affection. He was born with a brain tumour which was removed, but is considered a "thicko" at school. The reoccurrence of his illness, this time inoperable and so terminal, is the spur for the novel's dramatic finale.

It's perhaps not surprising they are close: their father abandons the household when they are infants, and their tyrannically religious mother beats them, and tries to set them against each other. The brother also plays the mother, in having her wait on him hand and foot. While our heroine is away at college (although it is deemed too trivial actually to tell us what she is studying), he stacks shelves in a local supermarket by day, and becomes a lazy, antisocial, nerdy computer gamer by night.

In typical bildungsroman fashion, the story arc chronologically follows the narrator through school and its social jostling, adolescent rebellion and loss of virginity, that departure from messed up home to college and undergraduate shenanigans, a rejection of her mother's fierce brand of evangelical religion, the temporary relief of sexual promiscuity ("Saying yes the best of powers" – presumably when boys expect you to say "no"), all culminating in a return to the family homestead for her brother's last days and death. Along the way she is seduced by a visiting uncle from England when aged 13 and has an intermittent affair with him, and seeks out increasingly violent sexual encounters with strangers. She likes being beaten up.

There is long and complex history of Irish writers making good in England by presenting versions of the Irish experience that merely cater to and reinforce English perceptions and prejudices of Irish stereotypes. When Joyce saw what happened to Wilde in London, it made him only more determined to flee Ireland to continental Europe, and strengthened his refusal to "play court jester to the English". In our own day, there is still no shortage of Irish writers queuing up to tell the Brits what they want to hear, in publications such as the London Review of Books, conscious, no doubt, of the worldwide publicity and distribution attendant on a lucrative London publishing deal. In falling over themselves to demonstrate how 'over' the postcolonial chip on the shoulder they are, they serve only to show how much it still weighs them down.

One wonders where McBride situates herself in this scenario. Although, like everything else, the setting and timeline are frustratingly vague, passing references to Walkmen and Dexy's Midnight Runners' song Come On Eileen signal we are in the '80s, that not so fondly remembered time of referenda civil wars.

Another question is why is a youngish writer like McBride writing about the past? Even churchgoers would admit, Catholicism, extreme or otherwise, has become an increasingly peripheral part of contemporary Irish life. And it's not exactly like Catholic totalitarianism isn't a well covered topic in Irish literature. Could it be that she thinks this kind of account of Ireland still sits well with certain readers across the water?

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