Saturday, 10 May 2014


Magee and McBride. Both women writers. Both with first novels. Both Irish. Both shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.
Although Audrey Maggee  and Eimear McBride are different writers, with fiction that stands at extreme poles in the use of language, I don’t think either can help but be influenced by the long shadow of James Joyce.
Audrey Magee is a journalist, and choses to bring a journalistic style to her first novel, The Undertaking. Magee says she’d been brewing a novel about Germany in the war since she studied in Germany and went to view a concentration camp with a Jewish acquaintance. She says she wanted to understand the war itself, and how people get caught up in war. And the title she’s chosen perfectly describes both the personal story in the book, and the setting she’s chosen for it; the advance on Stalingrad.
She says she met the aged ‘protagonist’ to her first novel in the restaurant he ran. He told her the story of how he’d married a photograph of his bride in a ceremony carried out by an army chaplain. The purpose of the marriage was to secure the leave for the groom and a widow's pension for the bride. 
In the book, Peter Faber marries Katherina Spinell and gets his leave. He is introduced to her father’s Nazi friend, Dr Weinart, who brings chocolate cream cake baked ‘by one of the Fuehrer's bakers’. Peter spends his honeymoon evenings beating up Jews and pushing then into the waiting trucks, and his nights making love to his new wife.
Magee says her decision to write in a taut, understated style was deliberate because she likes that sort of reading but also, as this new generation engages with the past, looked for a fresh way to explore the 2nd WW...and what it felt like to be a German at that time.
What she achieves is to create emotion in her reader without being emotional at all on the page. I found the darkness and the dry, bleak tone disconcerting, even frightening. 
A considerable section of The Undertaking follows the advance of the German Eastern front towards Stalingrad. We see the siege through Peter’s eyes; starvation and disease and finally surrender – he has to carefully argue through the act before he can give himself up. 
In the meantime, Katherina’s brother dies when he returns to the front still plagued by his battle fatigue, and their mother sinks into a deep depression, fuelled by the eventual discovery that her son-in-law has escaped death by surrendering. At home, the raids on Berlin lower the fortunes of the Spinell family, which had been increased by the removal of Berlin’s Jews to the camps. Katherina and Peter’s child dies of meningitis and, as Russia takes over their part of the city, she is raped.
This brings us to the ending, which was the only part of the novel I didn’t enjoy. I felt it was rushed and poorly thought through. I won’t spoil it for you, it’s enough to say that, in the body of the novel, the failure to explore the emotions of the characters – or rather the technique of exploring them only by reportage and dialogue – works well, bringing an honesty to the writing and reflecting the emotionless way the Jews of Berlin are dealt with…’Bloody thieves, the lot of them,’ says Katherina’s mother when she discovers the Jewish-owned apartment they move into is bereft of jewellery. ‘They swallow it, you know. To hide it from us.’ But this lack of emotion doesn’t work at the close of the novel. I needed to see what the parties were thinking, and without the technique of interior monologue, there was no doing that. So we are left with decisions that felt weakened by our lack of participation in them. 
Although Eimear McBride is English, (she was born in Liverpool but moved to Ireland when she was tiny, growing up in Sligo and Mayo), she approaches being under Joyce’s shadow in a very different way.  She says Joyce  “pointed the way for her”, and that there is still plenty of room left in modernism (at least I hope so, she admits.) Her book won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize for fiction as well as being on the shortlist for the Bailey Prize.
As a writer, she approaches her techniques by using audaciously radical and challenging language. Certainly, this must be the most ambitious and furthest reaching piece of stream of consciousness that has been attempted recently, notwithstanding Ali Smith’s contributions. She says she felt there were areas of language, especially writing in a stream of consciousness, that hadn’t been explored, for instance by taking a step back from consciousness, to the moment when thoughts are conceptualized…or even before they are;
Feel the roast of it. Like sunburn. Like a hot sunstroke. Like globs dropping in. Through my hair. Spat skin with it. Blank my eyes the dazzle. Huge shatter. Me who is just new. Fallen out of the sky. What. 
This allows the emotion to hit you slightly after the physical reaction hits you, making the read a physical experience. Being brought right into the narrator’s mind is, however, a disjointing, sickening and often frightening experience. McBride’s subject matter is harrowing, even if her plot is simple, almost derivative – a child watches her slightly older brother succumb slowly to brain cancer, while she explores, via rape and family abuse, her growing sexuality But the rhythm of the language is simply something drags you in like a Wagner aria, so that you both love and hate what you’re reading at the same tine.
to hear the interview with McBride
The title is equally interesting as in Magge’s work,  for  A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing describes both the extravagant, disconcerting, jumbled-up language and the way the pace is broken over and over again, as well as the broken life of the protagonist. This amazing rhythm allows you to do an incredible thing....understand exactly what is being said.
One of the most interesting things about this first novel is that it was written almost a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, it was rejected by publisher after publisher, until the Galley Beggar Press took it up. These small, independent publishing houses are bringing us some of the best works around; I’d cite Jane Rogers, whose The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which was taken up by Standstone Press and went on to win prizes. 
I want my students to read both books and compare them; ask how they as readers they react to the experiences provided, what go on to ask how the writers achieved these outcomes, because both these original novels do surprising things with our emotions, and are examples of truly exceptional first books. 


  1. I agree with you that end doesn't work, but I think that Peter's transition from conscripted soldier to Nazi doesn't either. The first night with Dr Weinart would surely provoke a reaction, yet none is shown. The impression created is of an account of events rather than a convincing absorbing narrative.

  2. Yes McBride was the stronger contender and deservedly was awarded the prize