READS OF THE YEAR 2014: Laura Waddell
Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things To Me (2014)
A series of essays themed around gender and inequality (among them an experience which prompted a reader to coin the popular term “mansplaining”), Men Explain Things to Me is at times, due to Solnit’s tone of cool strength, a surprisingly soothing read. A relevant, up to date musing on inequalities within society and global structures of power with enough in the way of personal anecdote to be relatable on a micro level. This is a particular strength of Solnit’s who recognises the tone-setting power of the individual account in empowering others to speak out of their own experiences, and its use in imparting a sense of the attitudes of which the effects cannot easily be quantified.
Solnit’s style is peaceful and reflexive and at times, meandering, following journeys of thought with evenly paced steps. Accessible yet far removed from the mentally fatiguing, knee-jerk heatedness of fast-paced internet debate on similar topics, and portioned out into article-length sittings, it’s an effective rallying – the collection is energised and informed and leaves the reader feeling the same.
Eimear McBride, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (2014)
Undoubtedly my standout read of the year, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is an exciting and innovative debut by Eimear McBride. As we think in half-formed thoughts, organically shaped mulches of words and not perfectly punctuated prose sentences, the similar form of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is unusually penetrating. Once over the initial learning curve, McBride’s words enter the reader’s mind in an intensely direct manner. At times, it feels like sharing a mind. Her utterances are imbibed easily without the barrier of mentally translating formally constructed sentences (ironically, designed to communicate clearly.) Style, here, is not a gimmick – it is an essential element of McBride’s extraordinary achievement in creating cohesion between reader and book, between reading and thinking.
McBride has a talent which seems organic in itself, an intuitive ability to mould language into shared experience and work with not just meaning but matter. Words are created where they are needed to more accurately fulfil a descriptive role. Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, McBride suggested her dual Irish and English language may have played a part in her eagerness to be innovative, describing a pleasure in exploring structures of language which propelled her forward in writing this book.
Following the life of an unnamed young woman and interactions with her family, when events turn to bodily harm and sexual expression of an unhealthily habitual and compulsive nature, the form becomes particularly cutting. The protagonist, used to ill-treatment, learns to sacrifice herself. Sin and the the female body are explored throughout, presenting no definitive conclusions but reflecting a sense of powerlessness. Through the shared experience effect of McBride’s language, this makes for an emotionally climactic reading experience.
Frank Conroy, Stop-Time (1967)
Stop-Time is a memoir, but reads like a novel. Depicting his boyhood in 1950s America, Conroy describes experiences with a poignancy that never strays into the sentimental, painting details with the tasteful eye of an Imagist. Travelling salesmen and treks to gas stations impart a Hopper-esque taste to some passages as Conroy sketches rural mid-century America.
Boy Conroy equally reacts to and is isolated from his surroundings, capturing well a sense of a childhood inner world where landscape, objects, and people studied in the leisure of youth become infused with meaning; a series of totems reflecting self identity, before he breaks free of the confinement of childhood with all its triumphs and disappointments to roam the highways in search of something or somewhere new.
As the title suggests, Conroy is also concerned with time. “My faith in the firmness of time slips away gradually. I begin to believe that chronological time is an illusion and that some other principle organizes existence. My memories flash like clips of film from unrelated movies.” This makes for an immersive, atmospheric read. Reflections of childhood remind the reader how long ago seems their own; how quickly youth passes: but Frank still has the time to describe the glint of a workman’s hammer as it catches the summer sun.