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red dust road

Red Dust Road is the compelling autobiographical account of a woman’s search for her birth parents. The book was chosen by my very small book group, and we meet to talk about it on Wednesday. We will have lots to discuss I think. Not just a hugely compelling memoir, this is a book which raises questions of race, family and belonging.

The story of Jackie Kay’s upbringing and search for her biological parents is not told chronologically – the narrative moves back and forth across the decades, allowing different aspects of the author’s story to be revealed gradually. I enjoyed this non-linear structure, it has the feel of a long, intimate conversation, it definitely adds to the compelling nature of the narrative. The book opens in fact in 2009 with the author meeting her birth father in a hotel in Nigeria. The meeting is related with humour – despite the fact her father is not quite the man she had hoped he would be. From there we return to Jackie’s childhood, in Glasgow, her student days and the beginnings of her search for her identity.

“It is not so much that being black in a white country means that people don’t accept you as, say, Scottish; it is that being black in a white country makes you a stranger to yourself. It is not the foreigner without; it is the foreigner within that is interesting. Every time somebody in your own country asks you where you are from; every time you indignantly reply, ‘I’m from here,’ you are subconsciously caught up in asking that question again and again of yourself, particularly when you are a child.”

Jackie Kay is a poet, novelist and short story writer who grew up in Scotland. As a child watching cowboy and Indian films in her Glasgow home, she was suddenly brought up short, realising that she was the same colour as the Indians (who she wanted to win but who always seemed to lose). This was how she discovered as a seven-year-old that she was adopted. Naturally this was a shocking revelation to a child who had not noticed until then that her skin was a different colour to that of her mother, but her mother Helen handled the revelation with tact and sensitivity and great love. Jackie had been born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father, and adopted as a baby in 1961. Her older brother Maxi also having Nigerian heritage had been adopted a couple of years earlier.

“My friend Margaret says to me that a lot of people in the Party admire my parents for adopting my brother and me, and that we should be grateful. When I tell my mum this, she’s furious. She says Never Ever let Anyone tell You YOU should be grateful! WE are the ones who are Grateful!”

Their adoptive parents, John and Helen Kay were wonderful parents to both Jackie and her brother – and their relationship comes across beautifully in this book. Jackie was blessed to grow up in a warm and intelligent family environment, secure in their relationships to one another, Jackie was able to look for her birth mother, while relating every step of her emotional journey to the people who were mum and dad. John was a member of the communist party, and once stood as a member of parliament, while Jackie’s mum Helen worked for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

“And no matter how much she loved me, no matter how much my dad loved me, there is still a windy place right at the core of my heart. The windy place is like Wuthering Heights, out on open moors, rugged and wild and free and lonely. The wind rages and batters at the trees. I struggle against the windy place. I sometimes even forget it. But there it is. I am partly defeated by it. You think adoption is a story which has an end. But the point about it is that it has no end. It keeps changing its ending.”

It wasn’t until Jackie was expecting her son, that she decided to go in search of her birth mother – and then much later her Nigerian father. This quest took many years, and took Jackie to a number of places. Her birth mother was from a small town in the Scottish Highlands – and had met Jackie’s biological father in Aberdeen where he was studying at the university. Jackie’s meetings with her biological mother were not straightforward – and in this beautifully written, compelling memoir Jackie recreates their awkward meetings with great understanding and pathos. Over a period of something like twenty years – Jackie and her biological mother met about four times, communicating by letter too in between. Jackie’s birth was a secret that her natural mother was not ready to share with her family. Her journey in understanding her natural parents took to Nairn in the Scottish Highlands, Aberdeen and Milton Keynes, and then naturally in time to Nigeria.

Having met her natural mother, Jackie naturally had curiosity about her biological father – and she started to wonder if she could find him too. In her mind she has a clear image of a red dust road – leading to her ancestral village.

“The road welcomes me; it is benevolent, warm, friendly, accepting and for now it feels enough, the red, red of it, the vivid green against it, the long and winding red-dust road. It doesn’t matter now that my father turned out to be the Wizard of Oz, a smaller man than the one in my head, and a frightened man at that. What matters is that I’ve found my village. Matthew had asked me how I could feel anything for a place without the people, and I’d wondered whether I might feel nothing. But I feel overwhelmed just to be here.”

It is this ancestral village – as much as her natural father – that Jackie goes in search of. She is helped in her quest by a number of friends who support and encourage her, sharing her dream, Jackie is fortunate in her friends.
This is a wonderful memoir, warm and wise, it is suffused with the author’s poetical voice, her humour and understanding.

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the sans pareil mystery

Received from the publisher via Netgalley – with thanks.

I really needed to read something of a light and escapist nature this last week, which I knew before I began would be a long a tiring one. The San Pareil Mystery turned out to be a good choice. I don’t often read mysteries written now, I generally reach for more vintage stuff but I used to once rather enjoy historical mysteries if they weren’t too gory. The San Pareil Mystery is in fact the second book in the series – which I hadn’t realised when I downloaded it – but it really doesn’t matter, and certainly my enjoyment of the novel was not spoiled by having not read the first instalment. I was particularly attracted by the idea of the theatrical setting – I always think theatres are wonderful settings for drama and intrigue – although the theatre itself plays quite a small role in this novel.

“There, dangling backwards over the jagged edge of the upper floor, was the body of a young woman. She was on her back. Her lifeless eyes stared up towards the cold February sky. Raven hair, turned grey with dust, cascaded from her head down towards the courtyard below. One arm trailed helplessly and swayed in the breeze. Her lower extremities appeared to be trapped beneath the void of the floorboards of the room.”

London; February 1810 and the body of a young actress is found in an abandoned building in the process of being demolished. The young woman, a baron’s daughter, worked at the Sans Pareil theatre, (now called the Adelphi) a theatre unusually run by a woman. That this theatre was (and still is) a real place and that it was run by a real historical figure, adds a nice little flavour of authenticity to this story. In fact I thought many of the historical details seemed very realistic, and Kate Charlton does a really good job at bringing this fascinating period to life. For me as a reader, I enjoy very much being swept up by a period, in reading The Sans Pareil Mystery the modern world frequently melted away from me as I became immersed in the cold, murky gas lit world of Regency London.

Stephen Lavender is a detective with the Bow Street runners, working out of the famous Bow Street magistrate’s court. In the trusty company of his faithful sidekick constable Woods, Lavender sets out to discover how the young woman who has been identified as April Divine, came to be under the floorboards of a dilapidated building. Also on hand to help – in various and unexpected ways is beautiful Spanish widow Doña Magdalena – who had already saved Lavender’s life on a previous case. Magdalena is tough, but vulnerable, her son is away at school, and Magdelena’s money is running low, she is alone in London, but for her trusty young maid Teresa. It is quickly obvious that Magdalena and Stephen are drawing closer by the day.

With the Napoleonic wars still raging across the channel, Regency London is a place of intrigue, a city full of potential spies in the displaced peoples who have fled the wars in Europe. Lavender and Woods, find the case take several unexpected turns, which leads them from the sprawling, colourful life of Covent Garden, to back stage rooms of a popular theatre to the drawing rooms of the aristocracy.

“Dorothy Jordan and the Duke of Clarence were relaxing in front of the fire in their drawing room when Lavender was ushered into their presence. The duke was reading a daily news-sheet and Mrs Jordan had a novella in one hand and a pair of pince-nez in the other. She hastily pushed her reading glasses down the side of her chair cushions when he entered. He smiled at her vanity.”

We meet Dorothy Jordon, the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, herself a famous comedy actress, and another of the strong female characters in this novel. However, Regency England was a much more male dominated world, and a place of prejudice and suspicion. Magdalena’s Catholicism might yet turn out to be a career limiting problem for Stephen, if he decides to marry her.

As Lavender and Woods delve further into the case they begin to realise that the case, involving matters of national security is much bigger, than they had ever dreamed of when they first began their investigations.

I found The Sans Pareil Mystery to be a very engaging, mystery; I loved the Regency setting and the addition of real historical characters – and the relationship between Lavender and Woods is also lovely. There were a couple of elements that I was able to work out myself – and didn’t come as a surprise when they were revealed – but this is still a well plotted mystery with a dramatic climax to the case at the docks.

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thebigsleep2

The Big Sleep was chosen by one of the two book groups I attend for a classic crime theme, I probably would never have read it had it not been. Although I loved the original 1946 film (huge Humphrey Bogart fan here) I don’t think I had ever really fancied reading Raymond Chandler. So I downloaded the book to my kindle – read it (more of that in a minute) and then didn’t actually manage to get to the group.

bigsleepDespite being unsure about reading Raymond Chandler, my fond memory for the film made me expect to like the book, and things certainly started well. I knew enough about Raymond Chandler not to be surprised by his hardboiled writing style – it is one that has been parodied enough for it to be instantly familiar. The opening of the novel reminded me so much of that lovely old black and white film and that probably helped me settle into the book quickly.

The novel opens with Private eye, Philip Marlow having been called to the home of the wealthy General Sternwood. Admitted to the house by a butler, Marlow meets the General’s youngest daughter Carmen, and is treated to a display of her rather wild highly sexualised behaviour. The General, aging and unwell, sees Marlow in his conservatory, among his orchids.

“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket. The butler did his best to get me through without being smacked in the face by the sodden leaves, and after a while we came to a clearing in the middle of the jungle, under the domed roof. Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair, and in the wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hall.”

The General asks Marlow to look into the blackmailing of his youngest daughter by a bookseller named Arthur Geiger. During their conversation Marlow learns of Sternwood’s son in law Rusty Reagan, a man his eldest daughter married somewhat rashly and who has now disappeared. As Marlow leaves he runs into Vivian Reagan, who assumes that Marlow has been asked to look into the disappearance of her estranged husband, and is frustrated by Marlow’s refusal to confirm it.

thebigsleepMarlow is soon investigating the world of Arthur Geiger, going to his bookstore; it isn’t long before he discovers that the store is really a pornography lending library. Later parked up outside Geiger’s house Marlow sees Carmen Sternwood enter the house. From inside the house, Marlow hears a scream and a gunshot, cars speed away from the scene and Marlow goes to investigate. Inside he finds Carmen, obviously under the influence of something, sitting naked on a chair in front of an empty camera, the body of Arthur Geiger lying on the floor. Marlow takes Carmen home, entrusting her to the discretion of the butler, Marlow returns to Geiger’s house only to find that the body is gone.

Up to this point I was enjoying the book; although the style would probably not be one I’d choose ordinarily it hadn’t, at this point – in any way put me off. I thought in fact the novel started really strongly, I absolutely wanted to find out what was going on with Carmen, Geiger, Vivian Reagan, and her absent husband. Marlow speaks to the police, and the next day the Sternwood chauffeur is sound dead in his car – driven off the pier. From this point of the novel though, I found my attention wandering – which is not to be recommended with a complex plotted crime novel. I hate to say it, but I became bored, and I think it probably did have something to do with the style. The plot of the novel (of which I really don’t want to say too much more for obvious reasons) is richly complex – and we meet several characters, on both sides of the law, but there wasn’t the depth of character development that I really like. Philip Marlow and his irreverent view of the world, his cynical wit and quiet decency is definitely the best thing about The Big Sleep – and it made me want to watch the film all over again.

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”

Chandler wraps things up very neatly at the end, everything is explained satisfactorily and we leave Philip Marlow in a bar, ruminating about life and death. I am rather disappointed with my overall reaction to The Big Sleep – I think it will probably ensure that I never read Raymond Chandler again – though it might make me seek out those old black and White Bogey movies that I once loved so much.

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the yellow houseOn Sunday evening I laid my kindle aside with a book un-finished – and reached gratefully for something else. Oddly, I only allowed myself to do this having been told by several people on Twitter – that if I wasn’t enjoying my book – to walk away. My guilt was greater because this was a book group read – and one I voted for the evening it was picked (all book groups do that voting thing don’t they?).

It isn’t often that a book completely defeats me – once begun I generally struggle valiantly on. Although this year, I am happy to say, there has been little that has disappointed me – I have had a pretty good run. I am still not entirely sure why this particular book defeated me – it might just have been the case of the wrong time, wrong mood, maybe the wrong subject – for me at least – and not so much the book. The book in question: The Yellow House by Martin Gayford (2006) – a non-fiction book has a healthy number of four and five star reviews on Goodreads, but also many one and two star reviews – so possibly it is a bit of a marmite book. I am certainly not suggesting that this is a bad book – I read enough (a little more than half) to know it is a well-researched book with an interesting subject – I really had expected to enjoy it – and that’s speaking as someone who generally struggles with non-fiction.

The book is about the nine-weeks spent by Vincent Von Gogh and Paul Gauguin in the eponymous yellow house in Arles, the South of France in 1888. The subtitle – nine turbulent weeks in Arles – is a tantalising suggestion of a glimpse into the lives of two fascinating figures of the art world. I do like art – I am certainly not very knowledgeable however, but I do appreciate it, and generally like the work of these two artists. However something didn’t work for me, I was left cold, unengaged and dragged down by an overwhelming tedium. That sounds harsh – but that’s how I felt. Gayford does provide a lot of precise details about artistic execution – which was a little lost on me, I can imagine artists loving these details, and I’m no artist, I can barely draw a straight line.

vangoghVincent Van Gogh is a fascinating figure – and his story was the reason I wanted to read this book – and although he is presented to us here as fragile man already, he remained a little elusive, and Gauguin I certainly did not get to know at all. Vincent was already in awe of Gauguin when he came to the yellow house which Van Gogh had rented a few months earlier, that they should share a house was a plan he had conceived much earlier, and finally brought to fruition in October 1888. The two men collaborated artistically much more than I expected – one of the fascinating things that did emerge from the part that I read – each of them interpreting the same things quite differently. Living together in a tiny house with no bathroom, these two men with different artistic temperaments were always going to have problems. Gauguin begins to enjoy a little success, Vincent doesn’t, is often still thought of as a ‘madman’. I was frustrated by a story which should have completely captivated me, was in fact leaving me cold. So I stopped. This is a period which of course leads ultimately up to the time when Vincent Van Gogh suffers a breakdown and slices off his own ear. Having read only about 55% of this kindle book – it was Vincent who I felt for more – and I really do remain frustrated that the book didn’t deliver (for me at least) what it had promised.

As an aside – the reproductions of images of the artwork in my kindle version are pretty awful, displayed almost as greyish smudges. Although I have discovered that the paperback version only has small black and white images too – considering the importance of colour in the lives of these two men that does seem a shame.

I don’t like to put people off books, so you might want to make up your own mind on this one – we all like and dislike different things after all. The only reason I am writing this post at all is due to a self-imposed rule that I write about everything I read (unless it’s only a very few pages).

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theship

The Ship is Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel –, it is a dystopian work of brilliant imagination set in a not very distant future. Crucially perhaps, it all feels very, terrifyingly credible. This could indeed, very well be the world we are moving toward, a world that has destroyed itself, wasted its resources and is counting the cost.

I was born at the end of the world, although I did not know it at the time. While I fretted at my mother’s breast, demanding more milk than she was able to give me, great cargo ships sailed out of countries far, far away, carrying people from lands that were sinking, or burning, or whose natural bounty had been exhausted. While I took my first stumbling steps, cities across the world that had once housed great industries crumbled into dust, and pleasure islands that had been raised from the oceans melted back into them as though they had never existed. And as I began to talk, the people in the surviving corners of civilisation fell silent, and plugged their ears and their hearts while the earth was plundered for its last scrapings of energy, of fertility. Of life.

The world we’re introduced to in The Ship is a broken place, a place where things no longer grow, a place where pandemics, genocide and flood have taken a terrible toll upon different parts of the globe. Our narrator is Lalage (or Lalla), who turns sixteen as the novel opens. She lives in an apartment in London with her parents; Anna and Michael Paul – although her father who works for the government is often away. Lalla’s London is a frightening place, gangs in the underground, the camps in Regent’s Park have been bombed by the authorities and the British museum is filled with the human detritus of a world gone bad. It is a place where your most prized possession is a registration card – a sophisticated system of I.D – without a card a person literally has nothing – they are a non-person, with no access to the tools they need to survive, no access to food or shelter. Everyone has their own screen – linked by satellite to their registration card – Lalla’s father had designed and sold the screen software; Dove, to the military government, making him a fantastically wealthy man. On Lalla’s birthday her father; Michael Paul brings her a diamond, which he bought in exchange for a tin of peaches.

For years Michael Paul has been building, planning and getting ready The Ship – his dream, his solution, it is also his way of saving Lalla, giving her a future. He has spent years interviewing people to go with them, writing their names in the ship’s manifest, the people themselves living in a holding centre until the time is right. Till now Lalla has been fiercely protected by her parent’s what she knows of the world comes from them, her mother has taught her so much in their frequent visits to The British Museum to see what exhibits remain, and pass food to the rag-tag squatters who eke out an existence there.

One night, Lalla’s parents argue about whether it is time to move to the ship, when her mother moves to the window a gunshot rings out and Anna is shot. There is now only one place equipped to save Anna – the ship – and so Michael Paul, Lalla and her dangerously injured mother race to the ship, a message sent out to the people waiting for word. The ship is an almost paradise, stocked with years’ worth of food and clothing, for the five hundred people whose names appear in the manifest. All they need now is for the authorities to allow them to leave.

“From that day on, the new days just kept coming. The ship became a busy place, a bright place, a place where people smiled and talked and revelled in their safety and fullness.”

Before the ship can leave, Lalla faces a harsh and terrible lesson as her mother lays sedated by the one doctor on board. She has no practical experience of life, pain and loss – she has been protected so absolutely, as these chosen people prepare to leave behind the broken, dying world on land, Lalla encounters her first traumatic event. Lalla is young, naïve, and unquestioning, now everything she has known is shaken up, watching desperate people throwing themselves into the water as the ship leaves harbour Lalla becomes aware of a young man with green eyes.

“Night time was new to me. In London, going out in the dark would have been akin to plunging a hand into boiling water or eating from the pavement. Although I had seen the night from our flat, there had always been some light out there – from the oil drums, from street fires, from screens. Here there was nothing. I could not even see whether my father was still there. I stepped carefully towards the sound of his breathing, feeling for the deck rail and gasping with the cold of it. Then I felt my father’s hand, and I placed mine over it. He opened his coat and wrapped me inside it”

Lalla has many things to learn, and as she marks off the days on her cabin wall – she finally begins to question. Where are they going? Is it right they have so much when the rest of the world is dying? Lalla has enjoyed roast chicken for the first time in years, she has tinned pineapple for the very first time, and finds croissants laid out at breakfast, and is given a new screen by her father loaded with images of artwork and museum exhibits she can ‘visit’ anytime. Lalla is given work in the laundry which she finds strangely fulfilling – and slowly she begins to get to know the people her father chose – though she finds their blind, unquestioning faith in Michael a little disturbing. In a short space of time, Lalla does a lot of growing up – and finally she comes to a place where she must make a decision of her own.

The Ship has several powerfully allegorical messages, the ship could be seen as a metaphor for the grasping, consumerist society that we currently take for granted. The stores stacked high with food – while the damaged, broken world that has been left behind starves. Then there are obvious biblical parallels; the chosen people, a promised land, Michael at times taking on an almost Moses like or even Messiah like persona – with his people following faithfully. This is a book I want to sit down and discuss with friends – I have told several friends and my sister to get it so that I can.

The Ship is richly imagined and very well written, it is also a wonderful page turner. I am not known for reading dystopian fiction – although it is a genre I do like, and this is one that I heartily recommend, in fact I urge you all to read.

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Harvest

Sitting unread for about a year on my kindle I had almost forgotten why I had bought Harvest in the first place. That is until some recent reviews and renewed recommendations prompted me to finally start reading it. I am very glad that I did too; I particularly liked Crace’s prose, sensitively evocative, rooted in an ancient English rural landscape. There is a lovely timeless, allegorical quality to this story of landscape and change.

On the way between the harvest and the stackyard, unsecured bundles of cut barley have dropped on the verges from our wagons and our barrows, providing pickings for the ruddocks and the dunnocks to contest, and there are signs in the disrupted soil that someone’s pigs are on the loose and have been snouting for fallen grain. There is a silent ripeness to the air, so mellow and sappy that we want to breathe it shallowly, to sip it richly like a cordial. No one who knows the busy, kindly, scented universe of crops and the unerring traces of its calendar could mistake this morning’s aromatic peace and quiet for anything but Gleaning Day.

In a remote English village, on the morning following the harvest two curls of smoke are seen by the villagers who had been looking forward to a day of feasting celebration. The first column of smoke is seen to be coming from the manor house, where someone has set the master’s dovecote alight. The second column of smoke, coming from the far edge of the settlement has been lit by newcomers, a fire lit outside their temporary shelter to announce their presence and their intention to stay. Suspicions are immediately raised, the coincidence of the newcomers arrival at the time of the dovecote fire too great for most of the villagers to credit. Another newcomer however has also come to this place in recent days, a limping city man, who the villagers name Mr Quill, taking notes and measurements of the land. It is the presence of this man that is the real threat to the villager’s way of life – his notes and drawings herald change, with the common land that generations have farmed subject to the Enclosure Act, their land parcelled up with fencing, walls and worst of all sheep.

“Any hawk looking down on the orchard’s cloistered square, hoping for the titbit of a beetle or a mouse, would see a patterned canopy of trees, line on line, the orchard’s melancholy solitude, the jewellery of leaves. It would see the backs of horses, the russet, apple-dotted grass, the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet, and two grey heads, swirling in a lover’s dance, like blown seed husks caught up in an impish and exacting wind and with no telling when or where they’ll come to ground again.”

Our narrator is Walter Thirsk, himself an outsider, having come to the village with his master, Mr Kent some twelve years earlier. Having injured his hand when putting out the fire to the master’s outbuildings, Walter is not involved in the confrontation of the newcomers, although he has his own thoughts about what happened to the dovecote. The newcomers; a woman and two men, are swept up in the violent, suspicion that comes when people are afraid of what they don’t know. This violent confrontation will have far reaching consequences over the coming week, a week that will see the arrival of another outsider, a gentleman, Edmund Jordon the cousin and heir of Master Kent’s late wife, who is responsible for the upcoming changes. Terrifying accusations of witchcraft are levelled against those seen as behaving differently by some of Jordon’s men, and so starts the dark unravelling of a community. Crace builds the tension beautifully, as the heralded changes and superstitious suspicions begin to take their toll on a rural idyll.

The time period of this novel is unclear – although I assume it to be sometime during the 1600’s a century marked by the beginning of the enclosure act and famous for its witch trials – but the timeless nature of the story means it could in a sense be set at almost any time in the history of England.

A novel depicting how the working man was then and in a sense still is at the mercy of change, as human beings make progress; other human beings find their hard won skills supplanted. Harvest is also a novel about moral guilt, the difficulty of standing up for others especially at this time of dark suspicion, when standing out from the crowd can be personally catastrophic – Crace portrays this slowly building fear that engulfs a community with astute subtlety. The present tense first person narration of Walter Thirsk, works extraordinarily well, Walter as an outsider stands at a slight distance from the community in which he lives, and yet he considers himself one of them. Has lived and worked alongside these people for twelve years, and is perfectly positioned to witness the coming of the end for this rural community.

This is only the second Jim Crace novel that I have read; I read Being Dead several years ago and was enormously impressed, beautifully and evocatively written Harvest is a novel which I think will stay with me for a long time.

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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.

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