Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune, where she has worked since 1996. She is the author of "News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist," winner of a Minnesota Book Award.

Coffee House debut novelist wins Baileys prize for fiction

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel under Book awards, Coffee House Press Updated: June 11, 2014 - 2:39 PM

Eimear McBrideIt is always a wonderful and satisfying thing to hear that an unknown debut author has won a major prize for writing. It is not that we don't love the established writers and wish them success, but an unknown newbie rising to the top gives us hope and assurance--assurance that these competitions are fairly judged, that small independent presses are taken seriously, that the next generation of writers is as talented and accomplished (and brilliant) as the current.

And when the news that the unknown writer winning the big prize is being published in the United States by Minneapolis' Coffee House Press, well, the news is all the more welcome.

"A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing," by Irish writer Eimear McBride, was consistently rejected by mainstream publishers until last year, when it was picked up by tiny Galley Beggar Press in London. It will be published this fall by Coffee House Press.

Last week, McBride's novel won the Baileys Prize (formerly the Orange Prize); it was selected over many highly praised big novels by notable writers, including “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and “The Lowland,” by Jhumpa Lahiri, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize as well as the National Book Award.

“A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” is the story of a young woman and her relationship with her brother, who has a brain tumor. The girl’s father abandons the family, her mother retreats into Catholicism, an uncle abuses her.

Coffee House Press publisher Chris Fischbach said McBride’s book floored him when he first read it, “not only by the powerful story, but by its urgent, assaulting syntax, which is both relentless and engrossing. By the time I finished, I was spent: artistically, emotionally, spiritually. I had never read anything like it. We are beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to publish the U.S. edition of this brilliant book.”

McBride’s writing can be difficult, at first, for the reader to penetrate; the book is written in long blocks of fragments with only sporadic punctuation. But critics have found the difficulty well worth the effort. The Star Tribune review, which will be published in September, calls the book “brave, dizzying, risk-taking fiction of the highest order.”

The Guardian called it “jaggedly uncompromising in both style and subject matter,” and Irish novelist Anne Enright called the book an “instant classic” and its author “a genius.”

McBride’s award follows a number of significant awards won recently by Coffee House Press authors, including Ron Padgett’s “Collected Poems,” which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award, and Patricia Smith’s “Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah,” which won the Wheatley Book Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

McBride’s book has also won the Goldsmiths Prize, was named Kerry Group Irish Novel of the year, and was shortlisted for the Folio Prize. The Baileys Prize carries an award of $50,000 and goes to the best novel written in English by a woman. Originally known as the Orange Prize, the award ended briefly in 2012 when Orange telecommunications ended its sponsorship. Baileys Irish Cream announced sponsorship this year.

The other finalists for this year’s Baileys Prize were “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Undertaking,” by Audrey Magee, and “Burial Rites,” by Hannah Kent.

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