Monday, 28 April 2014

The Baileys Prize Shortlist, #4: 'In the stitches of her skin she'll wear your say'

Reading this novel after I found out it had been shortlisted for this year's Baileys Prize, I couldn't help wondering how I was ever going to compare it to the other contenders. A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is a precise, poetic and deeply-considered slip of a novel, distilling its intensity into two hundred pages. Meanwhile, my current frontrunners - The Goldfinch and Americanah - revel in being 'big, baggy monsters', grasping at a massive geographical and emotional scope to tell their stories, and spilling words with abandon. You could certainly excise chunks from either novel without being the worse for it, although opinion would probably differ regarding which chunks. Certainly I could live with a much shorter version of Theo's plotless stint in Las Vegas in The Goldfinch and didn't feel that Ifemelu's blog posts warranted being quoted verbatim in Americanah. But to return to the book on hand - I think the Baileys' judges have a tough time ahead of them. Ultimately, the book you back for this prize will depend not only on the usual variation of personal preference but on what, when it comes down to it, you think a novel is for.

The unnamed narrator of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is at her most chaotic when she struggles to tell the story of her own life. When telling other people's stories, she can be both clear and concise, summarising lives in a few sentences with the economy of a folk song (an impression that is strengthened by the half-rhymes she frequently uses). For example, on her grandfather, her mother's father: 

Saturday til afternoon dedicated to praying with his wife - when none of the little could enter without a big knock. Such worshipping worshipping behind the bedroom door. With their babies and babies lining up like stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to have to give that up. Twenty years in bed and a few after this before she conked. Ah desperate for him in his nice tweeds with his nice cane. Seven sons to carry his coffin. Seven daughters to follow and cry and one extra to make him martyr - surely toddlers die but she would have been the best. Sons for breaking chairs on the back of. Daughters to shoo from the bath for a wee. Rich-ish husbands or they got a crack in the jaw. Chaste-ish wives or the boys got more. Goodfornothinglumpofshitgodforgiveyou. Ours got for her wedding a glare though he paid. He, at least, knew how to behave. Though a man like our father meant nothing to him. Not to lick his boots. Not to be his dog. Of course he wasn't even surprised when he ran off.

It's a struggle to pick just one sentence to highlight from this beautiful paragraph, but on a fourth reading, my ears are still ringing with the resonance of 'surely toddlers die but she would have been the best'. This is this couple's grief for their daughter; nothing else needs to be said.

Our narrator, however, has a lot more to say as she navigates her way to adulthood in an Irish Catholic family, hobbled by her close bond to her brother, who is dealing with the aftereffects of a childhood brain tumour. At its weakest moments, her prose becomes predictable as she struggles with a word or sound; Calm. But. Again. Again. You. Can't be. Must not. Not again.' Although this is due to the stress she is under, because this technique is used by much lesser writers at points of crisis, it reduces the impact of the narrator's grief. At its best, she fragments sentences across a portion of text, shortcutting between points in her own internal dialogue as she figures something out, often returning to certain markers from which she cannot escape; 'See here this party. It's a mad. I had never been. I have only seen and thought films were like that. Music hurting on the innards. Door. Lungs.' It is a voice, I found, that becomes increasingly moving the more you read, the more our narrator crashes against the walls that she cannot break down. It's her brother who has the tumour, but I've never read a novel that supplies such a visceral sense of what it is like to be inside somebody else's head, and a head that's riddled with something that's worked its way in and won't go away; I felt as if I was following her chains of synapses, ideas that splutter out against the boundaries of her skull, and wondered what she would look like from the outside.

I admit that I have a very definite idea of what the best novels should aim to do, and, to be honest, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing doesn't fit that mould. Page by page, it is probably the most strongly-written of any of this year's remaining Baileys contenders (perhaps the judges didn't shortlist The Luminaries because they knew they'd be presenting themselves with an impossible dilemma!) But it doesn't give me what I most want from a novel; for that, I'd still have to turn to Americanah. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about not declaring novels like A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing to be my favourites, but I'm too interested in the detail of character interactions and the sense that the author's created a world you feel you can inhabit. The ground it treads also felt too familiar to me, despite the originality of its writing; the tragic-comic look at an (Irish) Catholic upbringing has been done again and again and again (Kevin Maher's The Fields, which also plays with voice, is a recent example). This novel would still have my vote if its opponents were less strong; it is a remarkable achievement. But for me, it's more of an achievement than it is a novel, if that makes any sense.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Cannot see the forest...

This odd, sparse novel begins powerfully but ebbs away into something that feels more like a first draft, or a children's book without the narrative pull a good children's book would demand. When Ann and Thomas Thornton's baby girl, Harriet, will only quieten within the boundary of the local woods, her harassed parents take the dramatic step of buying a tumbledown house under the trees to win back some sleep and restore sanity to their lives. However, while Thomas loves their newly-isolated home, Ann finds the forest oppressive after she recovers from her months of sleep deprivation. Two men parallel the Thorntons' story; Raymond, a silent farm labourer, and Keith, a factory worker with a chip on his shoulder and - as he sees it - a demanding set of women to look after. Keith, in particular, echoes Thomas's concerns about being a good provider and an admirable man.

The oddness of Into the Trees lies in the fact that it feels like a set of notes for a much better novel. The set-up is definitely promising. Harriet's mysterious crying and the woods that act as both sanctuary and threat, alongside a couple who can't think straight because they haven't slept for so long, feels like the opening to something satisfyingly dark and atmospheric (mirroring the wonderful cover). However, Robert Williams fails to capitalise on any of this. The woods themselves are barely described and so possess no sense of individuality, and their fearsome presence is pared down to a few throwaway lines from Ann. Even more frustratingly, Harriet's crying is never returned to, and seems to have been used as a bizarre plot device. She has an older brother, but the two children are barely distinguishable throughout the rest of the short novel and do not seem to react differently to the woods. Indeed, the woods themselves are sidelined by more familiar threats as the plot develops, and the title seems to become less and less relevant.

I can see what Williams was trying to do with this novel, and I like the idea of a tale told in simple prose that is slightly detached from the real world. But I'm afraid I've been left a bit bemused and bewildered by the lack of effort that seems to have been put into place and characterisation and the sense that there is nothing that really needs to be said. Unfortunately, I don't think I will be trying any more of Williams' work.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from Faber & Faber via NetGalley.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Baileys Shortlist, #1 to #3

Although extremely disappointed by the omission of Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, and, especially, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries from the shortlist, all of which are better than Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which did make the list, I thought I would post links to my reviews of the three books on the shortlist I have read. Of those, I'm backing Americanah, but I will return to the topic once I've had a chance to read and review the other three shortlisted titles.


To come

The Undertaking: Audrey Magee

A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing: Eimear MacBride

The Lowland: Jhumpa Lahiri

Monday, 7 April 2014

All this buttoning and unbuttoning

I very much enjoyed Harriet Lane's first novel, Alys, Always; it is a tightly-written and effective thriller that I would highly recommend. However, with her second novel, Her, I think she has outdone herself. Her is both beautifully-written and incredibly convincing. Rather than amping up the drama with a series of significant events like even the most subtle of thrillers - including Lane's debut - tend to do, Her instead bravely explores a relationship in which nothing of much consequence seems to happen or, crucially, to have happened, and yet rackets up the tension nonetheless.

Like Alys, Always, Her is focused on the interplay between two women; however, this time, the object of the obsession is very much still alive, and narrates half of the novel. Emma once had a high-flying career in TV, but now finds herself submerged in stay-at-home motherhood, chasing after her two-year-old son Christopher while heavily pregnant with her second child. When Nina, a confident and successful painter with a teenage daughter, re-encounters Emma, she realises that Emma remembers nothing of their previous acquaintance. Nina, however, remembers every detail acutely - and she is determined to make Emma pay. However, if Frances, the manipulative narrator of Alys, Always, was, as she put it, 'making pastry' as she inveigled her way into Alys's old life, Nina is making choux buns to Frances's shortcrust, so lightly and imperceptibly does she trouble Emma. Nina's delicate interventions are matched by Lane's precise prose. She's good at both description and social observation. As Nina looks through the contents of Emma's purse, she notes 'A green prescription form, scrawled over with a GP's hurried initials, for an entry-level anti-depressant.' Emma, on holiday, imagines 'my spine unfurling like a time-lapse fern, the spaces between the vertebrae widening and expanding.' It's the details - the entry-level, the time-lapse fern - that make these sentences work so well, and convinced me that Lane is a fine writer as well as a shrewd social commentator.

Ultimately, Her is such an interesting novel because the material with which it is built is so mundane. There are no really gory skeletons in the closet. Instead, we are reminded that the things that matter so much to us, that we can remember so well, often don't possess the same weight for anybody else. Emma forgets everything, struggling to organise her household and her children, but Nina, with a freelance career and a self-sufficient teenager, has time to remember too much. What drives her is not necessarily the seriousness of her loss - which was possibly not that serious at all - but the space she has in her head to retain, and to avenge, her younger self. We all have a 'him' or a 'her', somebody who briefly but significantly intersected with our lives, and, Lane seems to be saying, if we had Nina's time and opportunity, perhaps we would pursue them - although Nina goes further than most of us would go.