I once read the claim – which is most probably impossible to back up with statistical data – that at least 99% of our thoughts isn’t suitable for public consumption – not necessarily because of their content (though I guess that can be a serious reason, too, for not publicizing them) but rather because of their form (or lack thereof).
Sure, stream of consciousness, we all know what that is – wandering among free associations, memories and random thoughts in no way related to anything else – but this novel takes this to the next level and illustrates that what goes on in our mind isn’t always expressible through language.
So how does it work as a novel (which, after all, usually consists of language)? McBride’s method of choice is that she expresses the narrator-protagonist’s thoughts using a language that ignores everything we know about typical word order, sentence structure and sentence boundaries. Here’s a sample:
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.
It most definitely is; in the last couple of years I picked up this book a couple of times but I always gave up reading after three lines or so.
But now the time has come to finally read it, and I found I could get used to this style – after about 30 pages it seems quite plausible that it’s possible to write like this and it’s also possible to understand the writing. What’s more: it’s possible to be immersed in this style and forget about everything else – the novel’s unsettled and unsettling, feverish and intimate style – which expresses the narrator’s most chaotic, most ambiguous, most tender and most cruel thoughts simultaneously – is often beautiful and possesses a musical, poetic rhythm which completely envelops me. And even though it’s a deeply unpleasant experience to be this close to someone’s mind, be this deep inside someone’s mind – I couldn’t stand it for long stretches and reading this slim novel took me 4 days – the writing is strong and powerful, no doubt.
So much for the style – but what is the novel about?
It is set somewhere in a corner of Ireland, and includes several themes often found in Irish literature: Catholicism and rebellion against it; desolation; neglect; violence, unhealthy family and sexual relationships; and so on.
The story is centered around the relationship between the narrator and her older brother. Due to a childhood brain tumor, the boy is slightly disabled, has poor eyesight and below-average mental abilities, and the girl spends her whole life in the shadow of her brother. As a child, she tries to shield her brother from the cruelties of the world, and when she grows up, she runs away from home and tries to build herself a personality that’s separate from her brother, using very drastic methods which only help for a while.
And even though the girl has excellent mental faculties, that doesn’t diminish the chaos in her mind and doesn’t allow her to cope with the difficulties of her life any better (and she has much to cope with). The story itself is brutal, and told in this style it’s even more so. Reading this novel is about as uncomfortable as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy or Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. (There are also thematic similarities between these works.)
Recommended for emotionally extremely well-balanced periods – otherwise it might just be too hard to bear.