McBride’s debut novel tells the story of the relationship the protagonist has with her older brother who has a brain tumour. We learn that the brother has had his tumour from a young age and that it debilitates him throughout his school life and early twenties until his death. McBride ignores conventional English language techniques and uses short, clipped sentences that give us the stressed railings of the main character. She constantly refers to herself as ‘I’ and the brother as ‘you’, the other characters are referred to simply as ‘mother’, ‘uncle’ etc. so we never know any names. Thus it is devoid of any personal contact. We follow the story of how the main character’s childhood and early adult life is overshadowed by the brother and how she subsequently copes with that. The characters’ mother is neurotically religious and religion is an important theme throughout the novel, with the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary being cited again and again. The wider family circle is also important, especially the Uncle who is crucial for her “sexual awakening” aged thirteen.
The novel is written as a stream of consciousness which I found hard to get into at first because the sentences are short bursts of recollection and information. However, I found that as the book went on it got easier to follow and it was rather well done. The story was a little discomforting at times but nevertheless I did find myself eagerly reading on to see what would happen. The way in which the main character seeks out her men and completely offers up herself to violence is rather discomforting. However, after these encounters she consistently seeks to baptise and cleanse herself which leaves you questioning whether she is an actual sadist or if she is a victim of sexual abuse.
The author explores how the environment in which a person grows up greatly impinges how they act as an adult and how they conduct relationships. In the case of this book’s protagonist the overshadowing of her brother’s brain tumour, mother’s violent tendencies and lack of a fatherly figure make her the dysfunctional adult that she has become.
The ending of this book was just as climatic and upsetting as I had predicted. McBride’s unique writing style was captivating and I would be interested to read future works by her. This book has also been shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Literature but I feel that in comparison to Americanah (see previous review) it should not be a winner. I did like this book but I am hesitant to say that I enjoyed it because while I found the way in which it was written astounding, the disturbing nature and discomforting topics were just a bit too much for me.