Delicious descriptions: Eimear McBride is not all grim

Reactions to Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing, which I reviewed recently, vary greatly. It is, overall, a bleak read and its style is idiosyncratic, which makes it a double whammy. So, for example, it has been called “brutal” (by Sunday Times Ireland) and a “joyous thing” (by Michael Cathcart, RN’s Books and Arts Daily). Both of these make sense to me – the story is “brutal” but the writing is “a joyous thing”, because it’s alive, it wakes you up, it compels you on.

In 2013, as you may have already heard, it was the inaugural winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, which was “established to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form. Accordingly, the annual prize of £10,000 will be awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best”.

Like most “brutal” works of art, though, A girl is a half-formed thing does have light or chuckle-inducing moments. I wanted to share one with you. Reviewers, I’ve noticed, have tended to choose a scene from the grandfather’s wake to illustrate this so I thought I’d choose something different, a description of Mammy being visited by her church friends early in the novel. Here goes:

Some most are women. In a blue moon a man. I like to eye. Sitting in the corner jugging as I can for all they say is interesting. Dress undressing no-neck cindy. Not stopping or I get look at little lugs there listening in. Oh taking it all in that one. Doesn’t miss a thing. Spelling I know but too iquick to understand r.u.n.o.f.f with the s.a.c.r.i.s.t.a.n and they are living in s.i.n down in such and such a place. There’s stink girl’s mother and her sister with women’s troubles so peculiar all pointed down and asked and how’s ahem? Ah she’ll not sit down for years. Apparently the smell of it is something wicked but god knows it’s not her fault. Their brother’s second wife — ach the first died leaving five behind. Tell me where’s the sense? They’re wild as wild. As bold as brats. The P.P’s housekeeper — God rest her late husband. A lovely man. She gave him a hard life but sure. Mrs one whose husband ran the AIB. Uppity up in herself — behind palms in the scullery they whisper adding a splash to warm the pot. Great red hat she wears to mass. So we have a look at her and where’s the humility in that? Ah each to their own, they say. Then your woman who bought a knitting machine. A hundred and twenty pounds now where did she … Her little boy. Downs. God love him. She does school jumpers so she can get him toys that are ed-u-cat-ional nod nod. That’s right for God helps those who help themselves. The politician’s wife they’d normally spite but God help us her heart is broke. He’s running about with this one and that one. She can’t look down on them. Her vows were sacred and he’ll not get her in mortal sin. Her heart may be pierced with a thousand spears but she’ll offer it as a penance that’s a bit proud don’t you think? And the one whose husband’s a desperate drunk. Like his father before him you know the type, vicious. That’d kill you in it by mistake. Her blue eyes. Her black eyes. Is he on the bottle? they say and pray for sometimes giving up and the forgiveness of his sins.

Go with it – and it’s perfect, a funny, biting rendition of women’s gossip. Stop to unpack the “sentences” – and you’re lost.

8 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Eimear McBride is not all grim

  1. I’m still reading this! I had hoped to finish it over my Thanksgiving holiday break but you will forgive me when I tell you I spent all my time reading Richard Flanagan so I could finish it before it had to go back to the library today. 🙂

  2. That’s a lovely corrective to the focus on grimness that as you say most reviewers have focused on.

    “Stop to unpack the “sentences” – and you’re lost.” Great advice, I just read through that quote without pausing or trying to analyse and it worked brilliantly.

  3. At first I found this book very confusing, but as you say because of the writing I kept persisting with the read. When it all fell together in my mind, I couldn’t put the book down. I can understand why it won the Goldsmith Prize. (I had never heard of it until you wrote about it.) It is a daring and creative story.

    • Thanks Meg … Yes, I think it took me about ten pages to get what she was doing – where the voice was coming from and its rhythms. From then, as you say, it’s hard to put down. Daring is a good description.

  4. Reading her reminds me of those emails that go round showing how you can take out massive amounts of consonants or swap some letters back to front and somehow the brain still manages to grasp the essence of what’s there. I think the beauty of her writing and what makes it ring so true is that it very much mimics that inner voice we all have that sometimes thinks in perfect sentence and other times speaks more in fragments and sensations.

    • That’s a good way of describing how we are able to read it WordMothers. And yes, I agree that it does mimic how our inner voice works – and how different it is when we are calm or thoughtful versus angry, worried or stressed in some way. Thanks for commenting.

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