Irish writer's brilliant debut earns coveted spot on cover of TLS
John Boland on a bleak but sardonic novel by an exciting new literary talent
Eimear McBride's ferociously intense and stylistically challenging account of a young girl's coming-of-age in rural Ireland is an astonishing literary debut, yet its appearance under a small imprint is clear indication that conventional publishing runs scared of new writers who aren't easily packageable. What chance today for Joyce, Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Green or any writer intent on pushing against the form's limits?
Indeed, McBride – who grew up in rural Ireland before moving to England in her late teens – endured eight years of rejection letters until two mainstream publishers showed interest in a manuscript that was then to be vetoed as unsellable by their marketing departments.
Only after all that did her novel find its way to Galley Beggar, an enterprising small publisher based in Norwich, where McBride's husband, William Galinsky, works as artistic director of the annual Norfolk and Norwich festival.
The gamble paid off: the Times Literary Supplement was so impressed by McBride's debut that it featured her on its cover – a rare honour for a new writer.
You can see, though, why the book alienated nervous publishers.
This is a howl of anger and anguish, expressed in a language that's as fractured as the teeming thoughts of the unnamed narrator who lives with a fanatically religious mother and a slow-witted older brother who was born with an inoperable tumour and whose condition worsens as he gets older.
The location is unspecified, the timescale is unclear and the brother is named only as "you"; first, with embarrassed fury at his backwardness; then disregarded as the narrator pursues the obliterating alternatives of alcohol and sexual indulgence until finally regret and remorse lead to an unconditional love for her ailing sibling.
Readers who seek consolation and redemption from a novel should look elsewhere because there's precious little to be found here.
In McBride's broken prose, where sentences frequently either tail off or are chopped into a myriad of shorter sentences, the world is just as viciously and bewilderingly uncaring when her narrator reaches the age of 20 as when she began her story at the age of two. Readers in search of motivations and explanations will feel short-changed, too.
When, at the age of 13, the narrator undergoes a violent sexual assault by a middle-class uncle visiting from England, the shock lies less in the rape than in the narrator's complicity – a complicity that leads to other brutal couplings with him when she escapes home for the temporary freedoms provided by university life.
Anyway, she tells herself after one of these encounters that it was merely "a thing that happened on my route to here". Other (perhaps too many other) violent and transgressive sexual encounters recur throughout the book – the narrator going out of her way to be used and abused by strangers as she pursues her relentless journey towards self-destruction, alleviated only by the growing love she feels towards the hapless brother she'd neglected for so long.
"I see you lagging", she tells him when she's 15 and is seeking new experiences. "Where I'm going you cannot come." Yet by the book's end she's hopelessly recalling their childhood: "When you were little and I was a girl. Once upon a time."
If the foregoing makes the novel too bleak, it should be emphasised that it's also bracingly alive with sardonic humour and brilliantly realised set-pieces – notably a country wake up north for her hated grandfather, from which McBride fashions an extended scene of dark social comedy and beadily observed detail; and an invasion by the unloving mother's "holy joe" friends into the house.
And even the book's essential darkness is made bearable by its exhilarating linguistic effects, with frequent use of incantations, prayers, old sayings and snippets of songs woven into the pell-mell prose.
McBride has attempted something very difficult here – seeking out rhythms and truncations and other devices that correspond to her narrator's constantly shifting feelings of confusion, anger, despair and love – and the miracle is how seldom this feels forced or self-indulgent; so that even when the syntax becomes especially difficult towards the end, it perfectly mirrors the narrator's increasingly traumatised feeling of bewilderment at life's cruelties.
What lies at the roots of her trauma remains unclear, though it's expressed with such terrifying conviction that it's hard not to imagine some kind of autobiographical underpinnings.
That, however, may be downplaying McBride's remarkable achievement.
As to what she'll write next, that's anyone's guess because this book is a one-off.