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Joyce may have shown Mc Bride that, ‘you could do whatever you wanted with language and that the rules didn’t apply,’ but he doesn’t go here. In contrast to ends on an upbeat, but, given all that has gone before, the reader is left unsure. London is the scene: Mc Bride has described the novel as ‘her love letter to London’: ‘Here’s London spread out for you,’ ‘And I stand strick by its great space.’ Specifically we are in the streets, pubs, clubs and letting houses of North-West London – Camden, Kentish Town – in the 1990s (with occasional references to the IRA, ‘Pakis’ and the poor of the East End).
To the question of sets a different challenge: how on earth does anyone ever manage to talk to somebody else?Most simply, it brings to an end the illusion that either language or the world can be made safe., she proudly trailed James Joyce in her wake, claiming her allegiance to a European modernism which some have argued, wrongly I would say, has been betrayed by most of today’s fiction, in the UK at least (as if literature had prematurely taken the path of Brexit).Or even for seeing this as a betrayal of the first novel, whose unnamed narrator, after a lifetime of abuse and the sexual self-harm which is its consequence, takes herself off to the river after her beloved brother’s funeral and drowns (as one feminist paradigm would have it: the abuse of girls by men leads to death). This shift of place, of tone and mood should put paid to the idea that, in her second novel, Mc Bride has repeated herself.Grief is key, taking its place alongside sex and violence as another experience that brings language shuddering to a halt (you choke on grief). Mc Bride insists on her agency: ‘Now the reader may not find that the girl has become – and I shudder to say it – “a better person” by the end of the book, but she has, undeniably, become herself.’ Nonetheless, by no stretch of the imagination, can this be seen as a happy ending (the last line of makes its lilting bid for life: ‘Here’s to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.’ These lines then track through the first part of the novel as a refrain: ‘I will make myself of life here for life is this place and would be start of mine’; ‘What this pleasant present lacks. What is constant is Mc Bride’s unswerving commitment to unplugged syntax as it veers between common and uncommon sense.The lack is especially glaring in relation to women. The woman speaker of Beckett’s is haunted by some ugly, not quite spoken event.
Only when she read Edna O’Brien did she understand that ‘there was a part of women’s lives that had been absent in everything I had read.’ ‘Bored’ (her word) with the way sex is mostly written about, she has now given us two novels in which language falls apart under the pressure of sex. After all, sex and violence are two experiences that tend to leave people lost for words (Hannah Arendt described violence as ‘mute’). And something that’s never named happens to May Sinclair’s young Harriet Frean down the lane where her parents do not want her to go.
In is responsible for driving the 11-year-old he rapes to suicide: ‘At least he acknowledges what he did wrong. What fucks up language is fucking – good, bad or indifferent.
In there is scarcely a page untouched by the linguistic fall-out of sex.
Up to that point, it was possible to see language as immune to social and political contradictions, lord of all it surveyed, blind to the role it plays in shaping a world it claimed merely, and innocently, to reflect.
Modernist writing, famously difficult, is the appropriate form for that crisis.
Mc Bride has stated firmly that she wishes to be considered a European writer: ‘I’d like to set up my stall as a European writer …