Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press 203pp £11), published several years after completion having being passed over by mainstream publishers, is a debut of exceptional quality. Its portrayal of lived experience is so intense and its rendering of the mind’s workings so exquisite that it makes most other fêted debuts appear rather pallid.
The novel provides a startling account of a girl’s adolescence, told in an interior monologue that is less a stream than a fractured, fitful accretion of thoughts and sensations. Strange, often wonderful collocations and syncopated compressions are produced: ‘Chew it lurks me’, ‘Scabby over slices where scalpels were’, ‘Baby full of snot and tears’, ‘I retch up awful tickle giggs’, ‘Lie still and breathing. Go let traffic rock’. While the novel seldom strays far from conventional sense-making, it is often the sentences where grammar is most firmly shaken up that are the most expressive: ‘Slap of everywhere smells kitchen powder perfume soap of hedges in the winter dogs and sawdust on a butcher’s floor.’
Deep inside the mind of ‘I’, detail, place and period are not easy to discern, but the novel is never opaque: the narrator’s abuse by an uncle, her grandfather’s wake and her later masochistic sexual encounters are visceral accomplishments of storytelling. Though the techniques that McBride employs have a lineage in modernist writing, and their most significant innovators are also Irish by birth, her efforts feel unusually fresh and inimitable. This is the work of a writer with the courage to reinvent the sentence as she pleases, and the virtuosity required to pull it off.
Although the novel can sometimes seem a cloistered thing, its aptitude tends to be for microcosm, addressing the bigger picture through intimate human realities. Donal Ryan prudently plays to this strength in his Booker Prize-longlisted debut The Spinning Heart (Doubleday 160pp £12.99), employing a chorus of small-town discontent to tackle Ireland’s economic woes.
An ensemble cast is enlisted to lament the collapse of a local construction company, with each of the 21 chapters bearing the name of a character. Laid-off workers and residents of a speculative ghost estate, as well as a host of ancillary locals from pub bores to prostitutes, all share their thoughts, with only one or two bum notes ringing out amid the melody.
The devil is in the detail when capturing the roughshod, voluble spontaneity of speech or thought, and despite broad success Ryan falters when trying to pair the demotic with his writerly desire for metaphor and meaning. Words like ‘concomitant’, someone’s eyes being ‘pools of wet, blue sadness’, a character describing himself as ‘a modern incarnation of the poor tenant farmer’ – these are glimpses of an author who should be out of sight, paring his fingernails. Polyphonic narratives can make substantial demands on the reader as well, requiring them to join up the dots. But Ryan, apparently fearful of upsetting his audience, has overcompensated: a surplus of signposting and reiteration leaves the monologues feeling restrictively scripted, curbing the jagged, footloose expansiveness that the form can provide.
In part the constriction is a consequence of having a tightly arranged plot to keep on track. While The Spinning Heart broadcasts the economic headlines and their social impact, it also shares tabloid preoccupations that demand more formulaic plotting: scandal, murder and child abduction. In the unsteady ground between Panorama and Midsomer Murders, the documentary realism suffers – there is the same eyebrow-raising number of psychopaths as in Midsomer – but even with cliffhangers to create, Ryan still manages to provide an empathetic and worthwhile social portrait.
A veteran playwright but a debut novelist, Frank McGuinness has composed
Arimathea (Brandon 256pp £12.99) using a similar polyphonic structure, but rather than rooting his work in the present, he has instead imbued it with the uncanny atmosphere of folklore. Set just after the Second World War in Donegal, the novel describes the visit of an Italian artist commissioned by the local Catholic church to paint the Stations of the Cross.
The accounts of the locals are languorous and unpredictable, making it hard to gauge where you are being led and for what purpose, particularly when one chapter is written in verse and the climactic unveiling of the paintings fizzles into inconsequence. The painter’s own account possesses, in its coverage of his sorrowful childhood, a narrative intensity that the other accounts lack, but it is similarly eccentric – the main event being his banishment to a convent for urinating in his father’s favourite cupboard.
McGuinness’s learning, as a professor and translator of classic drama, is evident from the profusion of religious symbolism and the lyrical cadences that reverberate in the phrasing. But freighting the narrative with resonance doesn’t alter the page-by-page tedium of some sections. Nevertheless the oddity of it all, the offbeat atmosphere and narrative motility, makes it an intriguing piece of work.