So I’ve been quite away from the world of books in the past year. From dealing with mental illness to a full-time job, I’ve had little time to delve into a good book. But I’ve recently re-discovered the library (HALLE-FRIGGING-LUIAH!) and went on a book hold rampage (over 30!) based on some of the year-end lists of best books for 2014.
I’ve got a whole damn lot of catching up to do.
The first book that made on the hold shelf was Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.
New take on stream of consciousness
You rarely find stream of consciousness done well–or interestingly. There’s Ulysses, of course, but the lack of punctuation always put me off. In A Girl, you get punctuation… but not necessarily the punctuation you expect.
And of course, this book is deeply indebted to the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses, the famous last chapter describing Molly Bloom’s thoughts as she goes to sleep. The unnamed girl in this book, however, is fully awake: we experience the world through her eyes and her consciousness.
This is a family story, a love story, a tragic story of children living adrift in a world in which they can’t really fit in. In a way, it also reminded me of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. The deep brother-sister bond, the ways each does everything they can to save the other pain and misery, and the ways each try to escape the lot they have been given by life.
The main character’s brother is an unlikely survivor of a childhood brain cancer. The sister is raised in the shadow of this cancer by a dysfunctional mother who spends too much time praying and not enough time loving her children.
This is not an easy book to read. The descriptions of violence (sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual) are so raw and real that I wanted to kill the offending characters. The world of this novel is a bleak, bleak place, filled with rain and small kitchens and dank bedrooms. Characters have no names. Places are never identified. It’s just “mother, brother, uncle, grandfather, a man”. It’s just “home, the city, the apartment, the bathroom.” It gives the book a sense of fluidity–it could be anywhere. It could be next door or, in this case, Ireland (identified only by the smattering of Gaelic in a few spots).
But it’s also an incredibly rewarding read, if you can stick with it. It’s difficult at first, but after a few chapters, you get into the rhythm of her thoughts and feelings as if they were your own. They roll on your tongue and in your mind, and they become part of your own experience.
And another thing I loved about this book: it’s a deeply rebellious book. It’s feminist and anti-religious and it’s about freedom. It’s also about love, the love that some of us are not given and try to replace with other things, like love for a brother, or sex.
In her teenage years, the main character protects her brother from constant bullying and mockery by having sex with the guys in his year. Here’s a paragraph that stayed with me throughout, and after I was done:
And in a car the best. Warm and parked away. They’ll do what they can to me in here. On my knees I learn plenty — there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do. (My emphasis)
For a Catholic culture that reveres refusal when it comes to sexuality, this simple word, yes, is a big rebellion. And it resonated with me so deeply, because as a feminist saying yes is what I fight for. And refusing this right, this right to be able to say yes (or no) to sex is when the true tragedy of rape happens.
This book is going to be read for decades as a masterpiece of the stream of consciousness style and as contemporary women’s writing. If I taught a women’s writing course or a course centered on sexuality themes, it would be on the reading list.