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  1. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, proudly bearing a quote from Anne Enright on the front cover of the Australian edition, reminds readers of what The Gathering might have been. The style is experimental. Verbs are scarce - apparently Eimear McBride wanted to portray just what the girl saw - and sentences tend to be fragmentary. In particular, in the opening sections when the girl is a young child, the ideas are not even half-formed and the narrative is hard to follow. The reader has to read between the lines. Later on, as the girl passes through teenage and on to young adulthood, the ideas are clearer and the narrative has a firmer shape. This could be a relief, except that the subject matter becomes darker and darker as the narrative clears. Growing up in rural Ireland some time ago (exact timing is not clear, probably 1980s/1990s), life has dealt the girl a modest hand. There are people in the world far worse off, but there are others who have landed up with broader horizons and happier home lives. The girl's father has died; her brother is a brain tumour survivor; her uncle is creepy and her mother lacks any strength of resolve. Despite this, the girl manages to fly the nest and study across the water. The novel does have a plot - and a slow-burning shocker it is too - but the strength is the use of this extraordinary narrative style to build a world and build a person. It is not so much about what happens to the girl as about how it affects the girl. How and whether it changes her development. This is the joy of the title - we see a young person with a distinctive personality nevertheless being moulded and shaped as she grow by those around her. Right up until the end, it's not quite clear what the final shape will be, how nature and nurture will resolve their struggle against one another. The narrative style does come with frustrations too. There's no point pretending that there weren't times that I wanted to throw the book across the room, slowly plodding through a soupy mire of abstractions. There were times one wanted to tell Eimear to just get on with it - especially the first half of the final section feels overlong. But miraculously, it is all pulled back at the end; all the effort seems worthwhile and the flabby sections no longer feel flabby. There is great beauty in the novel, but you only appreciate it by standing back at the end and seeing the whole. Does that sound pretentious? There have been comparisons made to Joyce and Beckett. I can see that, though this is not as abstract as Finnegan's Wake, not as narrative as Ulysses and a whole lot warmer than Beckett. If anything, it reminded me of Edna O'Brien's Country Girls or John McGahern's The Dark - provincial and unexpectedly primitive, but with bright lights of opportunity shining through at times. There is a risk that Girl is a derivative, imitative work that will be dismissed as a fraud. But right here, right now, it feels like a genuine, authentic article that represents the emergence of a monster talent. If I had doubts when I laid the book down, they are evaporating by the hour. Girl has the hallmarks of a major work of our time. *****
  2. A Naked Singularity is a strange novel. It is narrated by Casi, a maverick and very junior defense attorney in New York state. Casi is of Colombian heritage and goes to some effort to conceal his last name. He has a distinctive voice that he uses both to discuss the minutiae of his life (creating a feeling of being “Almost There”) and to depart into lengthy digressions. Overall, the novel is very good, has an unusual feel and creates atmosphere well. Remarkably, considering it has been shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, A Naked Singularity was first released as a self-published novel. And in some ways it does show. Firstly, the novel is way too long. At 860 pages, the reader has long since got the basic idea and by the end, it does feel a bit like being beaten about the head by the same good ideas, over and over again. Speaking of being beaten about the head, there are lengthy sections about middleweight boxing. This might be an indication of Casi’s non-white, non-middle class background or it might be an extended metaphor about people who hang on too long, but the boxing takes up way too many pages on what is basically straight biography. The pacing, too, is wrong with the plotty bit being compressed into a short piece near the middle, arriving way too late and finishing too soon, leaving pages and pages of psychobabble to wind up the novel. These failings are obvious, but can be forgiven to some extent by the overall quality and feel of the novel. It does have a kind of crime/thriller element but it is so much more. The great length and enormous detail allow a study of a man and the seamy, slippery world he inhabits. The stream of consciousness narration is used to really present a full, complex character who manages to avoid pigeon-holing himself as being either good or bad. He is shades of grey. The storyline rests on some wonderful understatement and innuendo. In particular, for example, the enigmatic Ballena - you have to get near the end to meet him - is never really describes, except in terms of the shadow he creates. Yet he is far more impressive for not being described - for allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. There are also plenty of philosophical insights into the justice system and the petty criminal underclass, illustrated by a veritable circus troupe of unfortunates. We see people losing years of their lives for petty misdemeanours under the harsh US penal system. We get to see a compare/contrast example of a death row inmate in Alabama that is heartbreaking in the sensitive, understated way it is presented. The positives far outweigh the negatives, and the voice is strong enough and interesting enough to carry through the uneven pacing. I just wish the novel had been able to benefit from a professional edit. ****0
  3. A collection of short stories is only as good as its weakest story... Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but in a collection of stories where the writer has actually written different stories (so many seem to write the same story over and over again) it is inevitable that some will appeal more than others. Actually, I think it’s the mark of a good collection if even three or four linger in the memory. George Saunders has certainly achieved that in Tenth of December. My personal favourites included Escape From Spiderhead - a future world of clinical experiments into drugs that can make people love, make them neutral, make them tell the truth and make them miserable. The mixture of the horror with the scientific rigour and controlled conditions is quite wonderful. And The Semplica Girl Diaries, the diary of a man who is comically bad with money and consumer credit and uses finance he hasn’t got to purchase horrifically tacky, bogan things. Victory Lap has a child growing up with logical, rule focused parents. If there are common themes, they would include consumerism, selfishness, poverty and privation. The stories tend to have a pretty grim core, but are dressed up in light, fluffy clothes and a spirit of optimism. It’s a compelling contrast. I read the Kindle version of the book. It opens with a relatively long piece entitled: “George Saunders Has Written The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”. It is not obvious that this is an introduction that was published as a review in the New York Times Magazine - my initial reaction was to read it as a kind of surreal meta-fiction in which the author was a character in his own story. The review itself is long and quite unengaging unless you have already read the book. It is awkwardly placed in the Kindle edition and is not a good way to come to the collection. Tenth of December has been shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize. Perhaps the committee wanted to create a clear distance between the Folio Prize and the Booker Prize by including poetry and short stories. And that’s commendable. But it does mean trying to compare apples and oranges. Short stories, for all their worth, are not the same in terms of depth, complexity or consistency as novels. But as short stories go, Tenth of December is a pretty good collection. ****0
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