A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Hey there! It’s another Writing Wednesday.

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I’ve been adjusting to a new job and writing through some challenges, which has kept me away from the bloggerwebz. But I have returned this week after finally reading the 2014 winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride.

If you haven’t read this book, just a heads up — it’s not your typical novel. While the story may be somewhat familiar — a girl facing harrowing challenges and familial drama as she comes of age (this is me putting it into the broadest possible terms) — the way it’s written will likely take the reader of traditional fiction a few pages to get used to.

Jesus that. Stink of that. City when I got off the train. Get a lungful of that in you and see how you do, she says cigarette filter fraying brown on her tongue. Thoo pthoo. Looking knackered, alright? Not too bad. Come on with me, Thanks for. It’s a good month is it since I seen you last. Is there loads to tell me? Ah there is oh loads. And aren’t you mighty I say. Coming all this way. In. Not much missus. You are. Well fuck and I am. Now I’d say, a good laugh’s what we need.

This is a story written with poetic sensibility. It focuses on the rhythm of words together, often forgoing full sentences in favor of percussive fragments. As you can see in the excerpt, words are left out, but the words that remain are always enough to allow your brain to fill in the rest, especially after you’ve been reading the book for a while and completely settle into how it’s written. One of the things I like most about this novel is that the sentence fragments are also sensory fragments: snatches of what the protagonist sees/hears/feels/smells/tastes/remembers all strung together. I don’t know about you guys, but that’s exactly how I remember things. Like someone taking a bag full of jigsaw puzzle pieces and dumping them out on a table — some pieces will be upturned (which is what you remember), some won’t. And McBride doesn’t just point out what the protagonist is experiencing, she allows the reader to enjoy the same sensory experiences. One example of this is in the writing out of sounds (“Thoo pthoo.”), which you both hear in your head and feel the shape of in your mouth as you’re reading.

There are full sentences in the dialogue (“Is there loads to tell me?”), but the dialogue isn’t set apart from the rest of the narrative. Dialogue and description are presented equally. No quotation marks, little to no punctuation. Sometimes a “sentence” will be made up of two phrases smushed together with no punctuation (“Ah there is oh loads.”) or odd punctuation. But once you fall into this story, it becomes easy to distinguish between characters and keep up with who’s saying what. You’ll also find one-word sentences/fragments in this story that either follow from the previous phrase or carry you into the next one (“Coming all this way. In.”). Encountering those one-word bits reminded me of moments when my brain thought it had formed a complete thought/sentence and then had to shove another word onto the end to actually complete the thought (which happens fairly often 😀 ).

Not only is the novel technically interesting, the story itself is compelling and emotionally intense. I felt so much anger toward so many characters reading this book, hahaha. The mother is one of the most infuriating characters I have ever come across. Then again, the shittyness of some of the people in this story definitely makes it easier to feel sympathy for the protagonist (though there were plenty of times when I got pissed at her for not slapping the teeth out of someone’s mouth b/c they deserved it). She has tense/precarious relationships with every single person in her life. This is not an exaggeration. BUT! McBride doesn’t try to sell you a “woe is me” narrative or push your buttons in a cheap way. People make terrible choices as a matter of course in this book, but you get to understand them well enough that these choices never feel out of character. Don’t get me wrong — I definitely wished HARD with the turn of every page (especially towards the end) that people would get their friggin’ acts together — mostly for the sake of the protagonist — but at the same time, I was never surprised (for better or worse) by a character’s actions because those actions coincided perfectly with who each character had shown themselves to be.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t said much about the plot. That was on purpose. Read this book — the story is worth discovering on your own. I think, as with any story, if you come to it fresh, it’ll make a greater impact on you.

Long pitch short: give A Girl is a Half-formed Thing a read if/when you’re in the mood to challenge yourself mentally and emotionally (and when you’re in the mood to break shit over how much you hate some of the people in this book. OK maybe that was just me. But probably not.) Thank you for all those feels, Eimear McBride.

Happy Wednesday, everybody!

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

What up, y’all?

Last night, I attended the readings of the work shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction at Cadogan Hall.

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One of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, the BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction – previously known as the Orange Prize for Fiction – celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.

It was a cool event, with a wine & nibbles bar on one level, a cocktail bar on another level, and a Waterstones book stall where you could buy copies of any of the six shortlisted titles. I, of course, had to buy them all. (Support authors and bookstores!) The ooooonly downside to the event was the fact that I could basically count the number of men present on one hand. Women have always been expected to read male authors, but apparently the reverse is unthinkable for some even today. It’s the same for books written by writers of color. I think many people automatically feel alienated when, on the surface, they don’t have much in common with an author (despite us all being human beings who live human lives and experience human things). It’s like “Ah, that book was written by a woman — must not have anything in it that’ll apply to me or my life as a beardy lumberjack spacecowboy.” But…don’t you, as a man, interact with women on a daily basis? Don’t you have female relatives, friends, co-workers, and/or acquaintances? Isn’t your life influenced by the mere existence of women on Earth, just as our lives are influenced by your existence? Male, female, black, white, Asian, Russian, alien overlord… We can, and should, learn from and be entertained by one another at every opportunity! How else can we squash misunderstandings and move forward?

Anyhoo, I really enjoyed this event. Then again, I always love hearing authors read and talk about their work. Unfortunately two of the shortlistees (Anne Enright & Hanya Yanagihara) couldn’t make it — each had male stand-ins — but Anne’s reader, Robin Robertson (her editor), was my favorite of the night. It was also really nice to hear him talk about how much he admired and believed in Anne’s work. It’s good to have people like that behind you.

By now, you’re probably staring at your screen thinking, “Well…?! What are the shortlisted titles, you f*%#ing tease?!” So here’s the breakdown (and I haven’t read any of these books yet, so I’m going to use their descriptions from the BWP website):

Ruby by Cynthia Bond
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Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East-Texas town. For Ruby Bell, Liberty was a place of devastating violence from which she fled to seedy, glamorous 1950s New York.

Years later, pulled back home, thirty-year-old Ruby is faced with the seething hatred of a town desperate to destroy her. Witnessing her struggle, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.

The Green Road by Anne Enright
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A darkly glinting novel set on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, The Green Road is a story of fracture and family, selfishness and compassion – a book about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.

The children of Rosaleen Madigan leave the west of Ireland for lives they never could have imagined in Dublin, New York and various third-world towns. In her early old age their difficult, wonderful mother announces that she’s decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
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One messy murder affects the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Ryan is a fifteen-year-old drug dealer desperate not to turn out like his alcoholic father Tony, whose obsession with this unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family.

Georgie is a prostitute whose willingness to feign a religious conversion has dangerous repercussions, while Maureen, the accidental murderer, has returned to Cork after forty years in exile to discover that Jimmy, the son she was forced to give up years before, has grown into the most fearsome gangster in the city.

In seeking atonement for the murder and a multitude of perceived sins, Maureen threatens to destroy everything her son has worked so hard for, while her actions risk bringing the intertwined lives of the Irish underworld into the spotlight…

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
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Meet Veblen: a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an experienced cheerer-upper (mainly of her narcissistic, hypochondriac, controlling mother), an amateur translator of Norwegian, and a firm believer in the distinct possibility that the plucky grey squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on.

Meet her fiancé, Paul: the son of good hippies who were bad parents, a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. His recent work on a device to minimize battlefield trauma has led him dangerously close to the seductive Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a pharmaceuticals empire, who is promising him fame and fortune through a shady-sounding deal with the Department of Defence. What could possibly go wrong?

The Improbability of Love by Hanna Rothschild
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When lovelorn Annie McDee stumbles across a dirty painting in a junk shop while looking for a present for an unsuitable man, she has no idea what she has discovered.

Soon she finds herself drawn unwillingly into the tumultuous London art world, populated by exiled Russian oligarchs, avaricious Sheikas, desperate auctioneers and unscrupulous dealers, all scheming to get their hands on her painting – a lost eighteenth-century masterpiece called ‘The Improbability of Love’.

Delving into the painting’s past, Annie will uncover not just an illustrious list of former owners, but some of the darkest secrets of European history – and in doing so she might just learn to open up to the possibility of falling in love again.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
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When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he fears he will not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.

The winner of the prize will be announced tonight! After getting to know these authors a little, I’m excited to find out who won. (The first audience member to get the mic during the Q&A asked the authors 1) if they’ve read each other’s work and 2) their own book aside, which would each of them want to see win? Too bad the chair of the judging panel vetoed the question before they could answer it.)

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think?