My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 7#: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

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This book is radical and new in both its style and its content. It took Eimear McBride almost ten years to find a Publisher willing to take on the novel- and the world is glad someone eventually did! A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is an important book, with awards to justify (like Bailey’s women’s prize and Goldsmiths prize) what a great book it is- and why it stands out as an example of exceptional writing that redefines fiction, and the conventions of fiction writing.

The nameless protagonist is an Irish girl living with her neurotic Catholic mother and older brother who has a life threatening brain tumour in an unspecified place and time. It is told in chronological order- from a foetus to a young woman. There are few events within the novel and you get the sense that the plot isn’t really what McBride is interested in.  It is about the unstable mind of the protagonist reflected in the chaotic syntax and grammar (or lack of) of the prose. The novel is told in a stream of consciousness, taking in all experiences the protagonist has from smells, sights, inner thoughts, to interactions with others- all blurring together to give an insight into a very confused and upset individual.

The protagonist’s older brother’s illness is at the heart of the narrative, and indeed the narrative is addressed directly to him. He develops a brain tumour as a child, which is operated on and leaves him disabled. His illness pushes the family apart, leaving them detached and unable to communicate- as if the awareness of human fragility and mortality makes it too risky to love someone. The mother blames his illness on the children’s lack of Catholic faith and believes that if they pray and abstain from alcohol, and sex he will be saved.

Unfortunately the mother’s negativity and control alienates the protagonist, leading her to seek solace in sex and alcohol. The novel boldly tackles the issues surrounding female sexuality, without preaching or generalising about it. The protagonist’s experiences are uniquely her own, and McBride invites the reader to see her as an example of female experience rather than the standard.  Indeed the protagonist’s sexuality is paradoxically, both a coping mechanism for traumatic experience and a basis for further trauma- thus perpetuating her sense of failure and self-hatred. McBride offers a view on female sexuality that refreshingly acknowledges the protagonist’s desire but still shows how it is central to her feelings of distress concerning her brother. She uses sexual encounters as a way to regain control- every time she feels anxious and stressed she seeks it out as a distraction and an affirmation of her self-loathing.

Indeed the novel’s descriptions of sex are pretty horrible to read. It needs the reader to interpret the words….so sometimes I was not sure whether acts were consensual or not, particularly with her Uncle (though undoubtedly even if she is consensual sex with a thirteen year old is never okay). As the novel progresses her ‘need’ for violent and often un-consensual sex occurs more frequently showing her deterioration- as her brother’s body deteriorates so does her mental state.

The prose is directed at the protagonist’s brother. I was not sure whether to take this address at face-value or whether she uses her brother as her other; the antithesis of her. She constantly refers to him as youthful and innocent, a reminder of what she herself is lacking. Though whether this is the case or not, the novel shows how events in childhood can affect dramatically adult life, and how damaging things can be when not discussed openly.

A Girl is a Half-formed thing is a love story, showing how the protagonist feels about her brother but cannot express in words, and a lamentation to her lost childhood and innocence.

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My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 6#: A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Discovered in the tunnels underneath the Victoria and Albert Museum Phillip Warren, a homeless young aspiring potter, is whisked away by the influential museum curator Prosper Cain to aid the eccentric potter Benedict Fludd. On his journey Phillip encounters many people that bewilder and amaze him with their liberal ideas, and glitzy obsession with fantasy and pleasure. Through his eyes Byatt begins a novel that both criticises and celebrates the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the political and societal changes present at the turn of the nineteenth century.

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The Children’s Book is an ambitious historical novel that spans approximately twenty five years and looks at how change affected the families and relationships; how liberal ideas clashed with rigid social expectations, and how wealth and gender influenced the expectations and prospects of characters.

Along with Phillip and his sister, the novel focuses on four other families. The Wellwoods of Todefright, run by matriarchal Olive Wellwood, a fairy tale writer and attention-seeker along with her husband Humphrey, and a throng of children cared for by Olive’s overlooked sister Violet.  Humphrey’s straight-laced brother Basil Wellwood living in London with his wife Katherina and two children. The Fludds, a family ruled by the paranoid potter Benedict evoking terror in his his wife and children and Prosper Cain, the widowed museum curator and his two children.

A.S. Byatt, like the author Olive Wellwood, spins magical tales of friendship and love amidst tragedy and secrecy in which the children of the novel are ultimately betrayed by their parents.

Ghosts occupied their minds, and crowded in the shadows behind them. They all had things they could not speak of  and could not free themselves from, stories they survived only by never telling them…’ (Byatt 2010, 614)

For this is The Children’s Book, a detailed discussion on the ways children are influenced by their parents’ choices and ways of behaviour, and have to live with the consequences. Unfortunately I cannot give much else away without providing spoilers….. Just know that this book is a beautiful and thoughtful read, which challenges the reader’s views on the differentiation between adulthood and childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 5#: Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

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In the early morning hours of 30th June 1860 a terrible murder occurred at the Kent estate. Three-year old Saville Kent was taken from his cot, brutally murdered, and tossed into the servants’ privy.  The nursemaid had woken up in the night to find his cot empty and had presumed he had gone to sleep in his mother’s room, but panic ensued when the nursemaid and the mother arose and the boy was with neither.  The house and grounds were searched until his body was discovered by a neighbour. Saville’s body had several stab wounds and his neck showed signs of strangulation. Everyone in the house professed their ignorance to the murder. The police searched the house for any signs of an intrusion but none were found. The perpetrator of the heinous crime had to be one of the residents of the house…  

Thus began a national obsession with the intricacies of the case. Newspapers, writers and citizens discussed their opinions on the case from the clues found, to the motive of the murder.  Everyone knew the ins and outs of the case, and there was a general consensus that until the crime was solved nobody was safe- the murder came to represent not only a singular act of violence but proof that crime could be an internal danger, and not just an external threat, to every home.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is an eerie reconstruction of the Road Hill House murder case, including newspaper articles, photographs of the family members and floor plans of the house- which makes it disturbingly real and relatable. It shows an ordinary family in an ordinary house, yet a murderer lives there and goes undiscovered. Kate Summerscale’s work cleverly shows her modern reader the very threat the case held for Victorian society by using these details- the notions of Victorian traditional values and respectabilities were unveiled to show secrecy and horror that could affect anyone and everyone. Although our modern fears are slightly different from that of the Victorians (heavens knows we’re used to the idea of surveillance in our homes) we share an instinctive human fear of danger- the security/insecurity of the home is still as disturbing and uncanny for modern readers as it was for the Victorians. Indeed I found myself slightly ill at ease turning out the lights after reading…

And these are all signs, not just of an informer, but a story teller. Kate Summerscale creates a detective story without compromising the real-life events or the culture the case was embedded in. It slips between fiction and reality intermittently, cleverly omitting facts and accentuating certain details to create suspense for the reader and mask the identity of the murderer. Indeed several years after the murder a member of the Kent family confessed to it and was convicted. However Kate Summerscale provides alternative versions of the tale, suggesting the implication of other family members alongside the confessions of the ‘murderer’- this elusiveness is the key to creating fear in the reader for the case is never resolved.

What I loved most about the book was Kate Summerscale’s ability to look at the case as a catalyst for fictional forms. She discusses authors’ interpretations of the case- showing passages of letters from Dickens to Collins about their ideas on motive, and the ways detective and sensational fiction were influenced by the case, for example there are links between Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (which  was being serialised in All the Year Round during the time of the case) and the case when Constance is in custody under suspicion so is the heroine of Collin’s sensational novel- confined to a mental asylum under false accusations. Kate Summerscale also shows how the Road Hill murder case changed public views on the role of the detective through Mr Whicher’s involvement in the case- influencing the creations of literary detective heroes known for their superhuman ability to discover clues and read human behaviour such as the omnipotent Inspector Bucket of Dickens’ Bleak House, or Sir Conan Doyle’s  exceptionally brilliant Sherlock Holmes.

Kate Summerscale’s ability to engage in the cultural forms of the time shows her sensitivity and creativity whilst looking at the facts of the case. Literature, and other cultural forms shape our understandings of history both collectively and individually, and without it I think her book would have been incomplete- just another non-fictional emotionless piece for the bookshelves.