Being an Irish writer is no easy thing. Who would envy a young novelist sitting down, squint-eyed and daunted, trying to write in the half-light created by the shadows of literary giants on an island where they seem to be particularly prevalent?
While the anxiety of influence can affect writers of any nationality, there is something especially onerous about inhabiting a national literary scene where the apex influence is a certain Mr.James Joyce. Both a cause for the illogical phenomena of national literary pride and an ogre who must be slain in order to proceed as a writer, what does one do with a problem like Joyce?
Well if you’re Eimear Mc Bride you write your debut novel in the stream of consciousness style made famous in Ulysess, acquit yourself with panache, and become a potential literary sensation. Problem solved.
A Girl Is A Half formed Thing by Eimear Mc Bride is as ballsy as it is brilliant. It tells the story of a marginalised unnamed protagonist who lives in an equally anonymous small Irish town; or rather it puts us behind her eyeballs and in her head. We get to experience her life from the age of two years old to the age of twenty.
As her lifetime unfolds we witness her relationships and the pressures they exude on her. Abandoned by a feckless father and raised by her overly pious and religiose mother, the protagonist struggles to find her place in the world.
Respite comes in the form of an older brother who she adores, a young man much affected by a childhood brain tumour and the procedures it necessitated. We soon discover her brother has not been left untouched by his childhood trauma, and is in the colloquialism of the town a little “slow”.
The hero-worship she felt for him as a child soon subsides giving way to teenage self-consciousness as she realises that he is never going to be able to be the “normal” brother she needs. Torn between embarrassment and love, this relationship is at the core of the novel.
While her childhood is not exactly a bed of roses, things take a darker when she hits her teens and a visiting uncle takes an unhealthy interest in her. After she is abused by him she makes the mistake of confusing victimhood with control and acts out accordingly acquiring a “reputation” in the process.
Although she eventually escapes the confines of small town life and moves to the city to study, she cannot leave her experiences behind. She continues to enact her destructive sexuality, both with strangers and the uncle who originally abused her.
Her rejection of religion and small town life is not presented naively as a clean solution to all of her problems, as is the common scenario in the “small town girl moves to the big city” genre. Instead we get a convincing and sympathetic portrait of a damaged individual unanchored and alone. Seeking respite in sex and alcohol she finds herself trapped in an escalating spiral of self-loathing.
The most striking feature of A Girl Is A Half formed Thing is the virtuosic use of language employed by the author to tell the tale. Mc Bride is like a potter moulding malleable language into the form she requires to express what is necessary at that moment.
Her stream of consciousness style so convincingly approximates the fluidity of thought at times I forgot I was a reader and felt I actually inhabited the head of the character that Mc Bride had constructed. Initially some readers may find the style off-putting but if you stick with it the result is worth it. A Girl Is A Half formed Thing is a promisingly powerful debut and I look forward to more from Mc Bride.