Thursday, June 05, 2014
Very many congratulations to Eimear McBride for winning the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction with her wonderful language-busting, hugely moving and truth-telling debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
I had been hoping to bring you an interview with her, as the BWPFF very kindly offered me the chance to spend a few moments with the winner (about which I felt very privileged), but unfortunately, as I had not been on the original guest list and the event was full to capacity, I couldn't be accommodated in the end. I was hoping that it would be McBride I'd be talking to, as her book was certainly my own personal favourite. I hadn't read any of the six books before the shortlist was announced, and hers was the one I reached for first. It's my kind of book: intensely involved with language (indeed creating its own innovative language) and psychology, and with the interface between the two. I wasn't that hopeful, though: personal and impassioned in tone, it made, I found, a distinct contrast to the other five books, all of which are fairly traditional, if complex, in narrative mode, in general coolly or carefully narrated and grounded in historical or political research. I thought that this indicated a judging panel biased towards the latter qualities, with McBride added in as a token experimentalist, and I'm thrilled that this didn't turn out to be the case.
This is no traditional story-telling. There is a story, and a compelling one, that of the unnamed narrator's development from her time in the womb to the point just before her death in her early twenties, a life overshadowed by her brother's brain tumour and physical and sexual abuse which lead to her own self-destructive behaviour. But the mode of telling, an address to the brother, with its broken sentences and associative language (here's the beginning: 'For you. You'll soon. You'll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she'll wear your say') brings more than just a story; it brings the state of mind created by that story, morphing and glittering with multiple facets in a way that traditional story-telling struggles to achieve. The bones of the story may be grim, but the headstrong, wisecracking personality of the narrator and the iconoclasm of her language ('a right hook of a look in the eye') transcend that grimness with a huge rush of energy, and the way that McBride captures the nature of experience in the moments before conventional language closes it down is exhilarating.
Do read it if you haven't. (The beginning is probably the hardest bit, and you soon engage with the mode, I found.)
I could hardly, on this blog, not touch on the much-commented fact that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing languished unpublished for 9 years, turned down by many publishers as unmarketable, and was only in the end published (by the small Galley Beggar Press) as a result of a chance conversation. Many have expressed the hope that the success of this book - it's also won the Goldsmiths award for innovative fiction, and was shortlisted for the Folio Prize - will prompt a sea-change in publishing, a new acknowledgement on the part of publishers of the intelligence of readers of which McBride spoke in lasts night's interviews. John Self pointed out astutely on Twitter, with a little prick of this balloon, that had the book been taken up by larger publishers it probably wouldn't have been entered for these prizes (but would have had to give way to more obvious choices). And it's salutary to read today's account by Sam Jordison (one of Galley Beggar's founders) of how even he might have ended up not publishing this novel. Would he, he wonders, have persevered to find the book's 'dark magic' if it had ended up in the huge pile of submissions that the book's success has brought to Galley Beggar, and which all publishers eventually must deal with?