Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, David Collard professed himself: “seduced by the beautiful syncopations of McBride’s prose as she charts her unnamed narrator’s development from infancy to the age of twenty.”
Was I seduced?
Well, the “surface oddness” of McBride’s prose identified by Collard does not really seem so odd in the context of that long modern Irish stream-of-consciousness tradition running from James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” through Sam Beckett’s Trilogy to certain passages of Flann O’Brien and even J.P. Donleavy’s “The Beastly Beautitudes of Balthazar B.” Of that ilk, it is superlative.
Stream of consciousness shifts into stream of dialog or description pretty effortlessly in this style, a quality that could give “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing” unexpectedly broad appeal. Once past the first stumbling block of the style, there’s nothing selfconsciously “difficult” going on here to put off the lover of the family saga, the kitchen-sink drama, the coming of age novel.
In fact, the style illuminates an otherwise grim and pinched childhood and adolescence in a stultified provincial Ireland that doesn’t seem to have moved on much from Patrick Kavanagh‘s “The Great Famine”—or from the petty bigoted religiosity that led to that work’s confiscation.
Casual sex is one of the heroine’s few means of revolt against this background—there is a lot of sex, including her seduction by an uncle as a young teen. “Saying yes is the best of powers,” she declares. But her consciousness, and the narrative, never really breaks free of the narrow family orbit. Other countries and cultures are barely mentioned, unreal staffage as two-dimensional as the more cosmopolitan flatmates and bedmates she meets at college. To wit:
“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.”
Her studies don’t seem to intrude much on her mental processes either. The core family drama occupies almost the book’s whole mind, from the infant diagnosis of the narrator’s beloved brother with brain cancer to his relapse and death in early manhood.
McBride’s tie up with her publisher is already almost the stuff of legend: apparently she simply got to know Galley Beggar through their Norwich bookshop (which is pictured in illustration form at right).
The results are impressive. The e-book edition is solid piece of work: everything in its right place and functioning as it should, with a fine and simple black cover design, and Galley Beggar serves it up straight from the website in various user-friendly formats, including Kindle.
If you want the frills and tricks of genre fiction to fire your imagination, this is not the book for you. But no sense blaming it for not being what it isn’t. I got bored and wanted it to end before the end, but that’s really just me.
McBride has crafted an accomplished, attention-grabbing debut, but I would be most interested to see how far and wide she takes her gift in subsequent works.
Publisher: Gallery Beggar Press
E-Book Price: $9.99 from Amazon; £7.00 from Gallery Beggar Press
Paperback Price: $11.95 from Amazon; £11.00 from Gallery Beggar Press (autographed)
Availability: Out now