GREAT BACK-STORY--young Irish woman tries for nine whole years to get her debut novel published, turned down time and time again, then the small and courageous Gallery Press takes it, and bang, it wins a whole raft of prizes.
And deserves them, too. So far as the plot goes, we are not too far from Dorothy Allison territory: our young narrator grows from girlhood to young womanhood in poverty, the corner posts of her life being a brother with what will become a fatal brain tumor, a mother given to bouts of Roman Catholic religiosity and guilt-mongering, and a sexually predatory uncle.
Stylistically, though, the novel reads more like Gertrude Stein--less like Stein's prose, though, than her poetry: staccato, hypnotically repeating, the syllables disjoining and rearranging themselves into new combinations. This sounds as though it would be very difficult to read, and probably is what discouraged all those publishers for nine years, but, actually, once you become accustomed, the movement of the language is generally swift. It would be hard to skim, true.
The novel is sad--terribly sad--but exciting in that it announces the advent of a marvelously gifted young writer.
But to talk about that sadness. For one thing, the only relief our (unnamed) narrator finds for her anger at her sexually abusive uncle, her grief over her dying brother, her frustration with her uncomprehending mother, and her guilt over all the foregoing circumstances, lies in promiscuous sexuality, with a streak of masochism in it, with a variety of strangers--and a continuing relation with the uncle as well. This all seems to be her choice. Does that make it a legitimate choice?
I've wondered about this before (see "Fifth of Five Notes on Sheila Heti," June 11, 2013), and I am still stymied. If feminism was about empowering women to make autonomous, self-determined choices about their own lives, is a young woman who freely, autonomously chooses sexual abjection therefore somehow... empowered? That can't be right, can it? Maybe I'm just too old.
But our narrator does not seem empowered, really, given what happens at the end--or what I think happens at the end. Here we have my second problem. Certain passages of the book, especially as the brother nears death and the narrator's sexual abjection become more frantic, have a (quite appropriate) hallucinatory blur, and the action becomes harder to discern. In the closing pages...
...okay, if you are the sort of person who prefers not to know endings, you may as well stop here. Looking around on the internet last night, I noticed that none of the reviewers discuss the ending of the book, which I found frustrating, because I wasn't sure I had understood it. Apparently there are serious taboos governing this matter.
But it seems to me (stop now or forfeit your right to complain) that the narrator drowns herself. There is a lot of going-to-the-other-side swirliness about these passages, and they are laced with phrases from W. B. Yeats's "The Stolen Child," a poem about fairies seducing/abducting a human child to leave its parents and come with them. There's also a lot of baptism imagery going on, here and elsewhere, of a bleakly ironic sort. Obviously a profound transition is occurring. But is the young woman actually committing suicide?
I may have misunderstood. Well, I will just have to wait for the Sparknotes commentary. Which is probably being prepared as I write, because this book is bound for reading lists all over this and other lands.