Eimear McBride’s talk at the Cambridge Literary Festival, discussing her prize winning debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, was chaired by Tom Gatti, the culture editor for The New Statesman. As we waited in our neatly formed queue to enter the lecture theatre I and my fellow book enthusiasts were given a copy of The NewStateman. I’ve never received more than a sense of irritation whilst waiting in a queue before, so a free gift was a nice surprise! The talk was held in Trinity College, Cambridge in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre. The venue was a short walk from the market square through a stone archway. I followed a line of people heading through the inner walkways of the College. Inside the Lecture theatre was small and intimate. Eimear McBride was adorned in sombre black apart from her striking blue, thigh length cowboy boots. Was she what I expected? I think the clue was in her colourful boots, this lady thinks deeply about life but has a lighter, more frivolous side too.
Eimear McBride began with a reading of the first paragraph of A girl is A Half-formed Thing. This first paragraph is most probably the most difficult to follow, there is a rhythm to her writing style that takes a while to master. These first words begin in the womb: 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. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
Hearing the words spoken by Eimear somehow brought them to life for me in a way that silently reading them just didn’t achieve. An interesting observation considering that Eimear seems to be heavily influenced by her dramatic training. Rather than taking the obvious route to writing, studying English Literature at University, she elected to follow a more dramatic route. In fact she wonders if the close study of English Literature would have made her write a totally different kind of novel. Her two main influencers are Joyce, a major influence in her twenties, and British playright Sarah Kane. Sarah Kane’s play Crave made her dare to be the author she wanted to be, to hold nothing back, to say what she wanted to say. I myself have witnessed Crave, this play was performed by my daughter, an AS student at the time at Comberton Sixth Form college. I found the language of the play and the portrayal of the students disturbing. The original play contains several dark haunting themes with four un-named characters. I can see why Crave would have been one of the influencing factors encouraging Eimear to write her novel, to push the boundaries of what is deemed to be acceptable literature. Eimear mentioned that A girl is now to be a play too, and this doesn’t surprise me at all, I can see that A girl would transfer well to the stage.
Eimear started writing A girl after a burglary in London. All her hand-written notes for another idea were stolen, so she had to start anew. One wonders what may have happened if the burglar hadn’t stolen her long hand notes? Would she have continued to write a different story entirely? Maybe this burglary was a fortuitous twist of fate.
Eimear’s background does mirror some of the story. She grew up in Ireland and came from a very religious background. In fact when she first came to London she was astonished to find that people don’t pray fervently in their living rooms as a daily occurrence. Sadly, she experienced two family bereathments, her father died when she was a child, and her brother Donagh died of a brain tumour. But the boy in A girl is not her brother, and the girl is not her. Of course it was not her intention to write such a harrowing tale. But one can’t help but wonder if this novel is a by-product of her sense of loss? A sad reeling at her brother’s death at a young age?
There are no semi-colons in her novel, horror of horrors, and no complex words. By writing with the minimum of fuss, she hoped to take herself, the author, out of the reader’s experience, so that the reader could experience and interpret the novel as he or she saw fit. In this she has succeeded. Each reader will react to this novel differently, there will be subtle, personal differences, and A girl will not appeal to everybody. Eimear didn’t plot. She hoped that the uncluttered style of writing would make the characters the focal point rather than the sequence of events.
The title of A Girl is a Half-formed thing slipped into a conversation with her husband. This long winded, ungainly stream of words seemed to fit the awkwardness and unstructured essence of the story, so the decision was made, the title was chosen.
I do admire Eimear for standing up for what she believes in. She had a long and difficult path to publication, I believe it took her ten years to get there. It would have been easier if she could have bypassed the unimaginative marketing departments of those publishers who rejected her. I do wish her every success in her future endeavours and hope that her success will make publishers pause and consider novels that don’t fit the usual marketing mould for success.
After Eimear’s interesting and inspiring talk I walked through Cambridge city centre admiring the Christmas lights. Walking past the taxi rank for a brief moment my eyes lingered on the long line of waiting taxis, wouldn’t it be nice to hop into one? But that would be an unnecessary expense. When I arrived at my bus stop I was greeted with two words, Eimear would have been impressed: No Destinations. Had I known all along? I always seem to have these verging on psychic moments. Hey, hold on don’t get all crazy on me!Of course this is sleepy Cambridge not bustling Edinburgh, and it’s Sunday. So I did hop into a taxi, and it cost me much more than a bag of chips. I wasn’t the only one to make the same mistake, a couple I met had to go all the way home to St. Ives, not Cornwall, I hastily add. Their taxi fare would have been a nasty surprise.
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