Eimear McBride wins Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction with 'astonishing' debut novel

 

Eimear McBride, a first-time novelist who failed to get her book published for almost a decade because its “stream of consciousness” was deemed too experimental, was named the surprise winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, McBride’s harrowing story of a young woman’s relationship with a brother still afflicted by a childhood brain tumour, took the prestigious award, formerly the Orange prize, beating the favourite, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

Liverpool-born to an Irish family, McBride, 37, feared her book would never be published. She lost two years of longhand notes when her home in north London was burgled in 2003.

The story is informed by her own experience, following the death of her brother Donagh, who had lived with a brain tumour for 23 years.

Her book, written in a six-month burst after the burglary, begins with its narrator speaking from inside her mother’s womb. However publishers baulked at her experimental “stream of consciousness” technique.

As the rejection slips mounted McBride, a former actress, who grew up in rural County Sligo, left her manuscript to languish in a drawer.

She revived the text after her husband, theatre director William Galinksy, met a book shop owner in Norwich who wanted to launch an independent publishing imprint.

McBride cut 8,000 words from her final manuscript for A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which attracted accolades after its publication by Galley Beggar, encouraging Faber to snap up the paperback rights.

The novel, described as a “shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a young and isolated protagonist” has taken the literary world by storm, winning the £10,000 Goldsmiths prize and Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award.

The author said she hoped her success would “encourage writers to be adventurous”. She had not initially intended to write about her brother but his death was the “single most devastating experience of my life” and “it just became the story I had to write”.

Among her rejections, McBride recalled “the glitzy agency who said they ‘might’ offer representation if I re-wrote it to their exact specifications and the publisher who said he was only interested if he could sell it as a memoir.”

One large US publisher told her the novel was “brilliant” but could “suffer in the marketplace” because readers were no longer sufficiently broad-minded.

McBride was presented with £30,000 Baileys prize, the only annual award for fiction written by a woman, at the Royal Festival Hall. The judges included classics professor Mary Beard and BBC broadcaster Sophie Raworth.

Helen Fraser, the chair of judges, hailed “an amazing and ambitious first novel that impressed the judges with its inventiveness and energy. This is an extraordinary new voice – this novel will move and astonish the reader.”

The decision to recognise the debut novelist over the favourite, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Goldfinch, was unanimous. Ms Fraser told The Independent: “We felt the McBride book stood out, it’s unlike anything else. It’s a novel for today about a girl trying to create a meaningful life in a world constricted by family and religion.”

The publishers who dismissed the novel may be kicking themselves. “They might have read the opening pages and thought ‘my goodness, this is a bit hard’. But it quickly develops into a compelling story and the style never gets in the way of that,” Ms Fraser said.

“It’s also very funny and very Irish and it makes you think about the role of the Catholic church in Irish life,” added Ms Fraser.

The judge said the “astonishing strength” of the shortlist demonstrated the continuing value of an award which is reserved for female writers. “All prizes have restrictions – this one just happens to be for women,” she said.

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