Eimear McBride’s novel heralds onto the scene. The ‘coming of age’ is hardly an under-cooked format, but it’s hardly ever going to stop being interesting. McBride though is tackling it in a startling new way. This is the first line. And what a first line to start your published career with.
“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear you say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, i’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day”
Naturally we’re thinking of Joyce’s Portrait… and those first lines of the father teaching his son about the ‘moo-cow’ and the ‘baby tuckoo’. But unlike Joyce’s classic text, where Stephen Dedalus gradually mature’s from those juvenile perceptions, McBride’s protagonist (nameless like the other characters) stays with this immediate conception.
The allusions to Joyce come naturally, but it becomes apparent that there is not a necessarily Joycean narrative to her work, despite, like Stephen Dedalus, the trajectory is from infancy to the early twenties. Her brother’s illness boils away in the background whilst the protagonist must tackle with the identity crisis of her emerging years. But where Joyce (at Portrait…stage at least) was dipping in and out of Dedalus’ consciousness, Macbride fully immerses the reader into the chaotic, reactionary mind of this female. Dedalus’ mission was to break free from the religious dogma to become the artist, A Girl is a… is striving for something with a much greater pretext and fluid – her identity despite religion being a constant presence throughout her life. The ‘Holy Family’ as she refers to it in her early days has her,
“Such worshipping behind the bedroom door. With their babies and babies lining up like stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to give that up.”
Gradually though, the religion that she is forced to live under, accept and live by enters her processing consciousness and leaks out into her frantic thoughts. When she starts coming into her sexuality in her early teens, it poses the kind of questions a life under religion does. It almost becomes scathing.
Yet there is another dimension that is more disturbing. McBride introduces the girl’s Uncle, who throughout constantly manipulates and exploits his niece for sex. It is brave, bold, and unflinchingly graphic at times.
“Two stairs. Three at a time if I can. Leave it. Sitting room. Watching there the telly all of them. I’ll be on my own. Be quiet insides. Don’t be fucked up. I will wait. This out. He’ll [Uncle] be gone. Quite soon. I’ll be pure to then. I will. It’ll be. It’ll be. Fine”
The big other of religion and the Uncle become entwined and confused and rather than it being about religion per se it is those oppressive things that can become enwrapped in that sense of the big other. There are at times, because religion is the thing she has grown up in, it is also her resort. And so we have the kaleidoscopic elements of life that serve and oppress us, constantly skewing the picture. Despite this, it is distinctly chronological in a linear coming of age way (Beckett is perhaps there closer contemporary). Eros and Thanatos are duelling it has an almost Baudelaireian view on sex and is difficult to view it as beautiful or destructive.
Noticeably, there is a constant allusion, and return to sea imagery, which is more reminiscent of Woolfe as if a metaphor for her equilibrium and state of mind: “Strange. Pushed out to the ocean of school. Wave back occasionally to her shore”. This is an wide-ranging metaphor to explore when the narrator is trying conceptualise her life, but it sustains and provides some poetic images, and is particularly powerful towards the end of the novel. In fact, the last part of the novel is one of the strongest I have read this year. It also provides respite from the immediate cluttered perceptions of the narrator, and is not only escape for her, but for the reader as well of this damaged life.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride is out now (240pp), published by Galley Beggar Press (£11). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.