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.

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