Irish cream on Baileys Women’s Prize longlist

Audrey Magee and Eimear McBride vie for £30,000 former Orange Prize

Fri, Mar 7, 2014, 15:09

Former Irish Times journalist Audrey Magee and Eimear McBride are among six first-time novelists on the 20-strong longlist for the £30,000 Baileys Women’s Prize, formerly the Orange Prize. Big names on the list include Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, Elizabeth Gilbert and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Audrey Magee, who studied German and French at University College Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University and now lives in Wicklow, has been longlisted for her second World War novel, The Undertaking (Atlantic Books), which Anna Carey reviews in The Irish Times tomorrow.

It is the story of Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier who, desperate to escape the Eastern front, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met; it is a marriage of convenience that promises honeymoon leave for him and a pension for her should he die on the front. With 10 days’ leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin; both are surprised by the attraction that develops between them.

When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of his wife that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into the Nazi party hierarchy, wedding herself, her young husband and their unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina, ordinary people stained with their small share of an extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to.

For an author who struggled for years to find a publisher, Eimear McBride is suddenly flavour of the month. She was awarded the inaugural £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize, set up to reward iconoclastic fiction, last November and was last month shortlisted for the £40,000 Folio Prize.

McBride was born in Liverpool to Irish parents, before moving with her family at the age of 2 first to Sligo, and then to Mayo. At 17, she left for London, and now lives with her husband and daughter in Norwich, which is where she found her small, local publisher.

Her debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (Gallery Beggar Press), tells the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. It is not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconsciousness railing against a life that makes little sense, forming a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a young and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is to plunge inside into the narrator’s head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it is always a revelation.