Sunday, November 16, 2014

reading: a girl is a half-formed thing

I think I vaguely knew this book existed, that it was out in the world. But when I saw it at the library the speed at which I snatched it from the shelf perhaps indicated that my vagueness masked something a little stronger. And when I put it down three days ago I felt full with something that I could not yet articulate. 

You know those puzzles you often see online, the ones that appear to be a jumble of letters, nothing quite making sense. But somehow you can decipher the message, something to do with the first and last letter being in the right spot allows your brain to reorganise the letters within each word until you see the message. Until you can read it as clearly as if it were never jumbled in the first place. Over the last few days, as I've let this story wash over me I've thought more and more about those puzzles, about our ability to find what is clear beneath what is not. 

Eimear McBride writes in a stream of consciousness style, but there is nothing smooth here. Her words are sharp, jagged even, torn and rough and sometimes difficult to read - difficult because of both the style and the subject matter. 

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a story about family, about faith, about death, about desperation. It follows the narrator, an Irish girl, from about the age of two as she grapples with the world. With a pious mother, an older brother living with a brain tumour, an absent father, a sexually abusive uncle who rapes her at thirteen - a trail of destructive relationships that leads to an ending not wholly unexpected. 

We follow her as she grows out of her small country hometown, as she moves to the city and starts college, as she follows this path of using sex as a salve for a wound that gapes at the edges. As she continues to engage in a toxic, abusive relationship with her uncle that becomes increasingly violent. As her brothers brain tumour returns and she watches him die. She is falling apart, piece by piece, from the very first pages. Her destruction catalogued across a landscape whose brutality matches her existence, in a family who is saved only from complete failure by the relationship of the girl and her brother - the you in the story. 

No characters are named, descriptions are painted in broad strokes and sometimes not at all. The staccato language, the unformed thoughts, the lingering feeling of reading one of those puzzles, the ones with the jumbled letters, and yet as I turned page after page I understood this story. I grasped these characters, I began to see what was clear underneath what was not. 

There is something about this story. I'm not sure if it's the style, the characters, the ending I had almost hoped for but that still hurt. I don't know, but when I turned that last page and realised that was it, it was a sharp hit to the gut. There wasn't anything else. 

It's taken me a couple of days to sit down and write this and I've barely read anything since I put this book down. Maybe I needed the time to process it, needed the time to get what was in my head and put it into words. And even now I don't feel like I'm doing this story justice. I don't feel like I'm getting this down right. 

Eimear McBride is an Irish author and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is her debut novel. It took six months to write and nine years to publish. Let that wash over you. It has been almost universally praised, an instant classic. A work of genius and just damn good storytelling. Something that works at you until it gets under your skin and you find yourself wanting to reach into the pages and grab the hand of the narrator and hold onto her tight. 

But something else about this story, apart from the Irish girl at its heart, has grabbed me, has allowed me an insight into my own work that feels overwhelming. McBride's story helped me realise my reluctance to paint my own characters in minute detail, my own preference for broad strokes. It helped me to understand why I place thoughts and feelings above specifics and why sometimes that is not just a way to write, it's the only way. 

Some stories are better when you have to fight for what is underneath, when you have to do some of the work of clearing the dust and dirt and rubble of words to decipher the message. And when you let that message settle into every corner of your mind, when you wait until it bubbles to the surface, maybe that's when you get to be a part of the story, even if only in the smallest way. 

This is not an easy read. But then, why should it be? What it is, is a book worth your time. A story worth working for. The narrator is a character worth knowing, worth remembering. Eimear McBride is an author worth the praise. 

kb xx

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

the places you'll go: land's end

There is a place on the south-west coast of England called Land's End. It is the most westerly point of England and is, naturally, a popular tourist destination. I spied in on map, while attempting to pin point Devon, and now I find myself determined to go there.

Part of my move to London is about adventure. About putting myself in the middle of a situation without prescribed boundaries and expectations; a situation with the potential for adventure that feels unattainable at home. And a big part of that, is not making concrete plans. Apart from a plane ticket, my intentions, my plans, my goals are roughly sketched; missing colour and clarity, they are sometimes nothing more than a few swipes of pen across a blank page.

But as the date of my departure from Australia draws closer, as I find myself pin pointing places on maps that I missed on my first European sojourn, I find myself with a growing list of places I want to go, things I want to see. In the spirit of sharing on this here blog I'm going to add them here under the, hopefully, auspicious moniker 'the places you'll go'. Which is, of course, a very direct reference to Dr. Suess.

Land's End is the first if these.

The name Land's End appears to derive from the old Cornish Penn-an-Wlas which translates to end of the land. The Romans called Land's End the seat of storms, a fitting description for a stretch of coastline notorious for shipwrecks. One of which has captured my attention. 

On the 23 of September, 1641 the English ship, Merchant Royal sunk roughly forty miles from the coast of Land's End. It's described as the richest ever shipwreck, according to reports by the surviving crew the ship was carrying '300,000 pounds in silver, 100,000 pounds in gold and as much again in jewel.' The Merchant Royal has never been recovered, it rests somewhere under the water off the Land's End coast, its silver and gold and jewels a mystery still. 

Despite the romanticism of a jewel carrying shipwreck, I find myself drawn in the first instance to this wild place because of its name. It feels both dystopian and medieval and I imagine standing on the edge of a cliff with the expanse of the Celtic Sea ahead of me and having that be an experience that will stick with me. An expanse of sea past the Land's End, in the most literal of senses how is that even possible?

Notwithstanding the beauty of Land's End, it is also incredibly dense with archaeological heritage, with more than 800 sites dating from the Neolithic era, the Bronze, Iron and Dark Ages and the Age of the Celtic Saints. Which I, in my own special way, find terribly fascinating.

I'm not sure how I'll get to Land's End. A mix of trains and buses and maybe I'll even walk part-way there. I'm not sure when I'll go to Land's End, some point after April next year is all I have, but I'll definitely get there. I'm not really even sure why I feel the need to go to Land's End, why I want to stand on the most westerly point of England, why I want to stare into the expanse of the Celtic Sea, why I want to see even just a few of the archaeological sites scattered around the area. I'm really not sure, but I'm going. Maybe that is what adventure is, not knowing and going anyway, or perhaps more accurately going in spite of the not knowing. 

kb xx

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

your imagination is running wild

I have a confession to make. I'm a little obsessed with horoscopes. Just not in the way you're probably thinking. I don't live my life by them. I don't believe the people that write them possess some bizarre ability to predict your future based on what time of the year you were born. I don't believe that specific star signs share characters traits and that Mercury being in retrograde is a real thing. Actually I don't even know what Mercury being in retrograde means.

I love horoscopes because they are like crazy off-kilter versions of micro fiction with the potential for so much more. Each one, even if it's only a few sentences, feels like a tiny narrative. A real live story, with this big crazy back story that - and this is the best part - you can interpret any way you like! Everything is so general and open-ended, it could mean absolutely anything and still make sense. So, I've started working on this little project, where I take horoscopes from where I can find them, pull one line and create a little flash fiction around it. It's a fun, entertaining pastime that fills in the hours between Serial podcasts and re-readings of The Secret Garden. 

And I thought I might start sharing them with you here. 

Hope you like!

kb xx

Your fantasy world is piqued today, Aries. Your imagination is running wild. Maintain a certain amount of control over your emotions or they may get the better of you. You could find yourself in a cloud of confusion by afternoon. Avoid this by making an effort to ground yourself throughout the day. Make sure your actions result from an equal balance between thought and emotion.

My imagination is running wild. I’m sitting in a busy cafe, my tea going cold, waiting for her to show up. I check my watch, twenty minutes late. I check my phone, my Twitter, my Facebook, my Instagram - no message. I imagine a train wreck, she was catching the train in right? Or was she driving, in that case an accident. I check the local news sites, scrolling through breaking news - nothing.

The waiter approaches, the cafe is full, he probably wants my table. He smiles, but I can see the pity under his full lips and perfectly white teeth. I wonder if he is an actor, they look like actor teeth.

‘Can I get you anything else?’ he asks.

The underlying message is palpable, can you please leave, I have customers who will take up both seats and order more than a cup of tea.

I shake my head, no.

‘Just the bill please,’ I say.

Relief floods his face and another pity smile forms on his full lips.

I reach into the pocket of my jacket and pull out some coins. How much can this cup of tea be?

The waiter with the lips and the teeth returns. He places the bill on the table and smiles again. More pity.

Five dollars for a cup of tea. I shake my head. I place the coins on the bill and begin gathering my things. I shrug into my jacket and gulp the last of my now cold tea. For five dollars I won’t leave any behind.

I feel my phone buzz in my pocket: it’s her.

'On my way!! Sorry!!!! Please wait!!'

Too late. She’s always too late.

I walk out of the cafe into the street. If she’s walking she’ll be coming from the left. I go right. My imagination is silent now. I should have known. You can’t trust someone who uses that many exclamation marks.