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A Girl is a half formed thing

Winner of this year’s Bailey’s Women’s prize for fiction Eimear McBride’s famously experimental novel is a little outside of my comfort zone. Overall I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy it (although there were occasional moments when I thought I was beginning to) –therefore I could only rate it as three stars over on goodreads. That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the accomplishment, it is a hugely accomplished work, and I am not surprised it has received the praise that it has. I am also not at all surprised to see that it has rather divided the ordinary reader, many people saying it is an amazing, astonishing work with others saying they really couldn’t finish it. A Girl is a Half Formed Thing at its very basic level is something of a marmite book.

“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. They lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.”

There are moments (these moments I liked a lot) when Eimear McBride’s fractured unconventional sentences become wonderfully lyrical taking on a rhythm of the Irish voice it’s written in. It takes a little settling into – but it becomes possible quite quickly to understand the narrative, and to enter into the mind of the unnamed narrator. To be honest, the structure of the novel, although not a style I particularly like, was not my biggest issue with the novel. Eimear McBride is an exceptional writer, to my mind she is something of a poet.

Written in a stream of conscious which throws many of the conventional rules of English grammar right out the window, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ spanning a period of about twenty years, tells the story of young girl and her family in Ireland. Living in a community dominated by the Catholic Church, our narrator is the younger of two children, being brought up by their mother, the father having apparently left some time earlier. The girl’s elder brother suffers a devastating brain cancer when he is a small child, a tumour he was not expected to survive, and continued to affect him throughout his life, in turn affecting his sister and her relationship with him and their mother. A family often in crisis, the children’s mother sometimes struggles to cope there are occasional beatings, maternal expectations that are hard to meet.

“We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped. I didn’t want it from that time on. You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no. That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted. To be left alone. To look at it. To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done. Know it and wonder what does it mean. I learned to turn it off, the world that was not my own. Stop up my ears and everything. Who are you? You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”

One member of the family who has a profound and lasting effect upon the girl is an uncle who lives in England with his wife and daughters; he first visits the family when the girl is thirteen. The horribly abusive relationship that develops between the girl and her uncle is uncompromisingly told, over and over again, it makes for disturbing and deeply uncomfortable reading, and I am sure that is the point. Numbed and damaged by the abuse, the girl begins to deliberately seek out more damaging, dangerous and abusive situations throughout her teenage years and on into early adulthood. This was the element I really didn’t like. I don’t suppose anyone could possibly like this story really, however, the deeply disturbing and unflinching descriptions of rape were such I just wanted to look away, it was all just really too horrible. The reader can’t help but feel slightly assaulted too. I’ll say no more about the reaminder of story, as I don’t want to spoil it for future readers, but suffice to say it doesn’t get any easier, and the final images McBride leaves her readers with are quite heartbreaking.

I may not have entirely like this novel, but I believe Eimear McBride is a very talented writer. The way she has played with language is extraordinary, these deconstructed sentences, tiny fragments that are pieced together, do create a recognisable world,  filled with real people. There isn’t however, the depth of character that I particularly like as a reader, and the limited nature of her description, means the images that one is left with are stark and rather brutal, I am sure this is not accidental. I will be interested to read more work by Eimear McBride in the future, but I may still approach it with some caution.

eimearmcbride

deckchair

Now I am on holiday from work, I have lots of lovely time for reading, unfortunately I also have more time for tweeting, blogging and book buying – which all have had rather unfortunate affects upon the amount I have actually read. Since I finished school for the summer on the 18th July I have read: four novels, a novella and a couple of short stories – so I am doing ok.

theblazingworldweareallbesideourselves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week of course saw the announcement of The Man Booker long-list – this caused much debate/criticism on Twitter and various other book blogs – I couldn’t help but be influenced. I downloaded two of the long-list to my kindle – Siri Hustvedt’s ‘The Blazing World’ – which I rather love the sound of and ‘We are all Completely Beside Ourselves’, by Karen Joy Fowler, who I have never read before and was maybe surprised to see on the list. Now bearing in mind I still have one of last year’s long-listed novels on my kindle tbr – I can’t promise I will read them before the prize is announced – but at the time of writing I am thinking of reading The Blazing World next.

 

On Thursday this week, I am intending to go along to a new local book group. Well I say local, if a fifteen minute walk followed by a twenty minute bus ride is local – but I can get there. The group, which I stumbled upon on Twitter, meet in a wine bar in an area of Birmingham where I used to live ten or eleven years ago – and a friend of mine already goes. The book they were reading for this meeting was ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ which won this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction.

A Girl is a half formed thingReading ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ – review tomorrow – was quite an experience. It made me wonder about the rise of so called experimental fiction. There seem to be a number of writers who want to play around with form, structure and grammar conventions. I suppose every art form needs its experimenters, who push the boundaries and make people think. The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is another Booker long-listed work – and a little look inside it via Amazon’s little magical thing – shows it to be another work which plays with language – in this case using a form of old English to tell the story set in the decade following the Battle of Hastings. Last year’s Booker winner of course was The Luminaries – another novel which experiments a little with form. I loved The Luminaries, but I didn’t really think the mathematically worked out astrologically based structure added anything to the story. I am not saying writers shouldn’t play with language and structure, novel writing is an art form, and like any other it will move and change along with the world in which it is written – but goodness it can be hard work. I finished ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ on Saturday morning with something of a sour look on my face I suspect – although there were things I admired about it. Honestly it made me go running and screaming back to an old book as with some relief I pulled an old 1930’s Susan Glaspell novel from the shelf, which had only just arrived from ebay.

Nevertheless I am looking forward to the book group – it’s only the second book group I have attended – the other one I went to for a few months but I lost patience with the choices, I am hoping I don’t feel the same about this one. I don’t mind being probed to read things a little outside of my comfort zone – and last time I did read a couple of things that surprised me. Anyway ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ will certainly make for an interesting discussion.

not wanted on voyage

The enthusiasm of others is really very infectious isn’t it? So when I read Simon’s and Karen’s reviews of Nancy Spain novels – someone I had not previously heard – I just had to totter off and see for myself.
Nancy Spain herself seems to have been quite a colourful character; a journalist and broadcaster who died in a plane crash in 1964. I can’t help but be entertained by the fact that Nancy Spain’s brand of column writing for the Daily Express caused it to be sued twice by Evelyn Waugh.

I enjoyed Nancy Spain’s dry ironic wit, there is definitely less detection in the sleuthing of the marvellous Miriam Birdseye – and more character exploration and quite a lot of teasing of the reader. A little look at some other things about Nancy Spain reveals that I might have done better to start with the first Miriam Birdseye book Poison for Teacher. For in Not wanted on Voyage Miriam’s sometime partner is Natasha Nevkorina former ballet dancer, and now Lady Shelly married to Sir Timothy Shelly. Some web sites I consulted referred to Natasha – as Natasha DuViven and makes mention of a Johnny DuVivien who doesn’t appear in this novel – oh dear I need to go back to the start. I always assume with vintage crime fiction that it doesn’t matter what order you read them. In a sense it doesn’t matter – I only confused myself by going off and researching Nancy Spain while I was reading – note to self – don’t do that! Anyway – I did enjoy Not Wanted on Voyage – and am now ripe for more.

“Poor Douglass Comett’s anxiety came out, bit by bit, over tea. His story was unusual and exotic, and its dangerous detail sounded extremely odd in Douglass’s mouth, where butter (one might have thought) did not often melt. But it melted now as she sat sideways on Miriam’s Victorian sofa, munching muffins, anxiously wiping his chin with his handkerchief, gulping his tea and pouring out his story in short sharp bursts. He was like a child who has held back a guilty confidence long enough.”

As the novel opens Douglass Comett arrives at 44P Baker Street (yes Baker Street) to consult Miriam Birdseye, he finds Miriam with her friend Frederick Pyke – a truly terrible poet – and proceeds to tell them both his troubles. Comett is the English director of the Dutch and English Comet Line – that run pleasure cruises to the Mediterranean. Heroin is being smuggled into England and it appears that the Comet is being used to traffic the drugs. Douglass Comet arranges for Miriam and Pyke to travel aboard the Comet – allowing them to escape an English January, while solving the problem that Comett fears will threaten his business.
So Miriam and Pyke are soon aboard the Comet along with Douglass Comett – his awful wife Hero, and their strange daughter June, her nanny and a host of other improbably named characters. Natasha and her husband Sir Timothy are also on the passenger list, as are historical author Gordon Furbank and his wife Zitha a couple who have a seemingly odd connection to the Cometts. The story line surround the Furbanks and Cometts is particularly interesting in light of something I read on dear old Wikipedia today – I can’t say any more – spoilers!

Never fear, if you like your murders – there are plenty here. The first occurring before the ship has even sailed, at Waterloo as the boat train pulls in – Hero Cometts mother, bringing seasickness pills to her daughter, is pushed under the train. Oblivious to the death that has already occurred and the one that is soon to follow; Miriam and Pyke content themselves with reading Elizabeth Bowen and Colette and settling into their cabins. There is a good deal of nastiness to be dealt with, and Miriam has her sharp eye on everything – although as I said she doesn’t do much actual detecting – things just kind of come together. Darling Natasha, as she is not infrequently referred to – is very very lovely – we are told this rather a lot – and poor Pyke becomes rather infatuated and throws himself tragically on his bunk to write really terrible poetry to her. Natasha is not just a pretty face though, and is prone to the odd out of the blue eureka! moment which helps things along nicely.

“ ’Hello,’ said Miriam. ‘I can’t sleep.’
‘Neither can I,’ said the murderer.
‘It is our consciences,’ said Miriam, pleasantly, ‘that will not let us sleep. They are never at rest. And even if we were to sleep we should dream. They would create for us that other world where personal images are thrown distorted, poor darlings, until we cannot even recognise our dearest friends. Lovely lovely sex, for example. Of which I am so fond. In one of my dreams recently sex appeared in a straw hat’
‘I see you read Freud,’ said the murderer sourly. “

There is something slightly irreverent and definitely un-orthodox about this crime story considering its time. Nancy Spain’s writing is full of humour and there are some nicely eccentric characters, whose voices are utterly bonkers and therefore strangely real. Nancy Spain must have had a good ear for the peculiar idioms of speech of the people she knew who included Noel Coward; some of the dialogue is really daft. I found Miriam and Natasha to be characters I can’t help but be entertained by and in my head at least, Miriam Birdseye is a dead ringer for Nancy Spain herself.

nancy spain

the grass harp
The Grass Harp was the latest read from my A Capote Reader, part of a superb collection; although I believe it has been often published separately as a slim little book. The Grass Harp is a beautifully written novella, a coming of age tale with some wonderfully memorable characters.

In a small southern town, a group of misfits come together to learn about love and what it means to belong to one another. The narrator of the tale is Collin Fenwick; an orphaned boy living with two eccentric ageing aunts. He is particularly attached to the elder aunt Dolly who makes her own medicine, and who is herself very attached to her friend Catherine, the elderly black woman who lives in a small house behind the main house, and who claims to be of Native American descent.

“Despite the generally beneficial effect Dolly’s medicine appeared to have on those who sent for it, letters once in a while came saying Dear Miss Talbo we won’t be needing any more dropsy cure on account of poor Cousin Belle (or whoever) passed away last week bless her soul. Then the kitchen was a mournful place; with folded hands and nodding heads my two friends bleakly recalled the circumstances of the case, and Well, Catherine would say, we did the best we could Dollyheart, but the good Lord had other notions.”

Aunt Dolly and her sister Verena argue about the medicine recipe, when Verena’s announces plans to mass produce it – Dolly, Catherine and young Collin start walking, eventually retreating to a tree house in a chinaberry tree. Verena calls in the sheriff to get her sister and nephew down and various local residents come along to call up to them and make their disapproval plain. Setting themselves against Verena and other residents of the town, who try to get them down, the three tree dwellers are soon joined by Riley Henderson and Judge Cool. Observing life from above, the tree dwellers draw together with Collin and Riley becoming friends, and Judge Cool – a kind wise man, in conflict with his grown up children, mourning his wife, – begins to have some romantic feelings for Dolly.

“Calling to each other, hooting like owls loose in the daytime, we worked all morning in opposite parts of the wood. Towards afternoon, our sacks fat with skinned bark, tender, torn roots, we climbed back into the green web of the China tree and spread the food. There was good creek water in a mason jar, or if the weather was cold a thermos of hot coffee, and we wadded leaves to wipe our chicken-stained, fudge-sticky fingers. Afterwards, telling fortunes with flowers, speaking of sleepy things, it was as though we floated through the afternoon on the raft in the tree; we belonged there, as the sun-silvered leaves belonged, the dwelling whippoorwills.”

An incident with local residents leads to Catherine being arrested – much to everyone’s fury, but the tree squatters remain, until another more serious skirmish leads Judge Cool to wisely advise they vacate the tree – and in doing so each have relationships to mend, but powerful friendships have been created.

a capote readerCapote’s writing is elegiac and memorable; this novella makes for utterly perfect summer reading, the warmth and sunlight pours off the pages and I rather wished it could have been much longer. Capote was obviously interested in misfits and outsiders, they seem to populate the small amount of his work I have read so far, but there also appears to be an autobiographical element to this story, and I have read that The Grass Harp was his favourite novel – although there have been criticisms of its sentimentality. Sentimentality aside – I don’t think it is overly so – I absolutely loved it.

My Capote summer reading will continue next month with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a re-read for me) and some more short stories. However I also intend to read the other pieces in A Capote Reader and I need to purchase A Summer Crossing to read during August. I am now a firm Capote fan.

 

Eunice Fleet

My latest read for the Great War Theme read saw me ordering my first Honno Classic, who I had heard of but not really investigated before. Honno Classics reprint works by Welsh women writers that are no longer in print. There are several more titles on their list which I rather fancy ordering – but I have resisted so far.

The Great War theme read has brought several books my way, which acknowledge the dreadful sacrifice made by so many men and women during World War One, both on the western front and the home front, this novel though is different, this is a novel of war resistance. Eunice Fleet takes as its theme the treatment of conscientious objectors in World War One. Lily Tobias was the daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Poland and Jewish culture is featured to a small extent in this novel, but it is on the experience of her own brothers as conscientious objectors that she particularly draws in this novel.

Eunice Fleet is the rather spoiled daughter of a Cardiff industrialist. When her widowed father re-marries a much younger woman, Eunice is horrified, and sets herself against her young step-mother and the half-sister who eventually comes along. Eunice is quick to marry herself – when still very young, her young teacher husband; Vincent is a political being, who proved himself as a strong and fearless when he saved a young girl from drowning. However it isn’t long before Eunice and Vincent’s happiness is threatened by war, and Vincent is branded a coward when he refuses to fight. Eunice finds it hard to understand her husband, and struggling with the realities of being the wife of a C.O she is dragged along to pacifist meetings, where she meets other members of the Cardiff pacifist community. Vincent’s convictions mean he is unprepared to serve with any of the other non-combative services like ambulance drivers – and Vincent soon finds himself in prison. Eunice feels so disgusted by Vincent’s convictions and understands them so little, that she is led to take drastic action that will still be affecting her in the 1930’s – her eventual refusal to visit her husband having disastrous consequences. Some snippets of letters from Vincent during these awful times – when he suffered such horrible indignities and felt as if he had nothing left – are heartrendingly poignant. Eunice is not a very likeable character, her callous turning away from Vincent is just awful, her selfish disregard of what he was undergoing, and her concern for how other people might view her as the wife of a C.O. is quite sickening. Tobias’ depiction of society’s attitude to conscientious objectors in Cardiff at the time is superbly drawn.

“She walked about the streets of Taviton on the tenth, vaguely aware of commotion in the town. People were hurrying hither and thither, there was a block of vehicular traffic at an unexpected point, brazen music sounded, and something like the tail of a procession wound ahead. Troops marching through, perhaps. She did not look at passers-by or listen to their talk. She was afraid of being recognised. Her visit home was hedged with aversions, and she meant not to prolong it. “

In the 1930’s Eunice is a business woman, having part ownership in a women’s corsetiere, following her father’s death and the flight of her step-mother Eunice was unwillingly made her sister’s guardian. Living in Maida Vale, they have a housekeeper called Mrs Johns and the war and its consequences in Cardiff seem a long way away. Young Dorry a fairly selfish young girl – seeming to take after her mother – is often jealous of her beautiful elder sister. Out of the blue Eunice meets George Furnival again, a man who she once took to visit Vincent just before the time she stopped seeing him. Faced with her past in the person of George, Eunice starts to think of Vincent again in a more tender way, remembering fondly the young man she had fallen for, her guilt appearing to press down upon her. George Furnival, holds similar political views to those of Vincent allowing Eunice to face up to the truth of her actions. However Eunice isn’t the only one drawn to George.

The novel is told in three parts; the present – 1932, the past when young Eunice and Vincent come together only to be separated by his convictions, and the present again – with Eunice still living with the consequences of her actions and living in some conflict with her younger sister.

Eunice Fleet is a wonderfully moving and quietly devastating novel. I rather like reading about unlikeable complex characters – which may seem strange, but they are often more interesting shining a light on the darker side of human motivations. As a war novel, this is certainly very different – it tells an altogether different story, but one that is important and certainly needed to be told.

Americanah

Americanah is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel – I did read her previous two novels some time ago, and have her collection of short stories waiting tbr.

Set in London, the US and Adichie’s native Nigeria Americanah is a wonderfully compelling novel exploring issues of race, and the immigrant experience.

As the novel opens Ifemelu has been living in the US for thirteen years and is contemplating a return to Nigeria. As Ifemelu goes to a hair salon to get her hair braided correctly, she begins to contemplate what her return will mean for her.

“…there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”

Ifemelu’s life in America has not always been easy, she made choices she later became ashamed of – and which led her to turn her back on the great love of her life. Initially living with her aunt and cousin Dike, Ifemelu soon strikes out on her own. Finishing her studies, while working as a child-minder, Ifemelu later starts a blog, a blog about race, taking an uncompromising look at US life from the point of view of “the non-American Black.” Her blog is an astounding success; she even manages to make money from it. During these years Ifemelu has relationships with both white and black men, and even this informs her opinion on race.

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

Told in flashback is the story of Ifemelu and her teenage lover Obinze. In their youth Nigeria had been governed by a military dictatorship, and as Ifemelu and Obinze who had been drawn together in secondary school, begin their university education, a series of strikes brings enormous disruption to the university. Ifemelu’s aunt; the mistress of “the general” a government man – takes his child and leaves, to begin again in America following the death of her protector. Suddenly Ifemelu has the chance to go to America too, and so when her visa is granted she decides to continue her studies in the US, well away from the strikes and power cuts. However Obinze is unable to gain entry to the US, and so following Ifemelu’s departure he leaves for England, where he eventually enters the shadowy world of the illegal immigrant in London.

Back in Nigeria years later, Obinze is a wealthy man, married with a young daughter, when suddenly Ifemelu gets in touch to say she is coming back. Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria is delayed by a family crisis. Fearing for her young cousin’s sense of identity, nervous of leaving him behind in an America that has so many different categories of race, and seemingly so little understanding of what that means, it is months before Ifemelu is again driving through Lagos. Once she is back in Nigeria Ifemelu begins working for a magazine, and begins a new blog, but it is quite some time before she plucks up the courage to contact her old boyfriend. When the two meet again, their old feelings for each other are re-ignited, and the two have some difficult decisions to make about their futures.

Adichie is a brilliant story-teller and in this novel she allows her characters, particularly Ifemelu to voice the issues of race, identity and politics that must affect so many people who migrate to other nations. Ifemelu is a character I came to love – she’s not perfect – she makes some frustrating decisions along the way – but she is a brave, outspoken and passionate young woman. Obinze was a harder character to understand, his rise from illegal immigrant in London to a wealthy man in newly democratic Nigeria is mysterious and fascinating, and I was willing him to come through for Ifemelu and be worthy of the faith I had in him. Aside from its exploration of race and identity Americanah is also a love story. Adichie’s sense of place, whether it’s Lagos, London or the US is strong, and as Ifemelu returns and falls in love again with her native Nigeria – so the reader can’t help but love it too.

chimamanda ngozi Adichie

classicclub meme

I haven’t answered a Classic Club question for a couple of months – and really it is time I did.

So in July the Classic Club is asking:

“Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?”

time torn manIn 2011 I read a superb biography of Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin. The Time Torn Man is a really a must for any Hardy fans I think. Regular readers will know I love my Hardy. When I read A Time Torn man – I was preparing to start my Hardy reading challenge. The challenge undertaken by myself and a few friends was to read the fiction (novels and short stories) of Hardy in publication order. I had already read almost everything at least once – there were just two volumes of short stories I hadn’t read before. Reading one book every two months the project beginning in July 2011 officially finished last month with A Changed Man and other Stories. Back in 2011 then, I already knew a lot of Hardy’s writing, but a lot of it had been read many years earlier, and my memories of those books, although fond had naturally faded with time.

In reading The Time Torn Man, I met Hardy as a child and young man, born into a fairly humble family; he was very much a part of the rural landscape he is so famed for writing about. Thomas Hardy a man who grew up appreciating music, who started out as an architect, who had to work hard to marry his Emma who was his social superior. The echoes of all these things are present throughout his writing. Hardy’s first marriage, starting off happy, didn’t really remain so, in their middle age, the two lived largely separate lives, Emma Hardy religious and traditional, Hardy himself critical of religion, feeling more and more trapped by the conventions of Victorian marriage. Again, throughout Hardy’s writing he returns again and again to themes of marriage. After Emma’s death, Hardy married Florence, a much younger woman, and wrote love poetry to the memory of Emma. He was an often conflicted and complex man, and reading this biography highlights this wonderfully. Claire Tomalin is a superb biographer – I also read her book about Jane Austen – excellent too!

Claire Tomalin obviously appreciates Hardy even more as a poet than a novelist – and the one thing I took away from this book – was the feeling that I had a better understanding of Hardy the novelist, the story teller and in a small way as a man, but I really needed to acquaint myself better with Hardy the poet. That remains something I am working on.

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!

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