An invigorating polemic on women’s oppression: Vicky Allan reviews Eimear McBride’s Something Out of Place

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Review by Vicky Allan

Novelist Eimear McBride, whose fictional account of Irish girlhood, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, won the Women’s Prize, has made a first foray into non-fiction, writing a short polemic that touches on issues of women’s objectification and oppression, chiefly through the prism of disgust.

Its final pages are a postscript written following the Sarah Everard murder. We might not immediately think of the word “disgust” when we think of that recent horror, or the reaction to it, but McBride makes the connection – she has in essence already made it over 160 pages – between the violence women are subjected to, the fear they live in and a particular understanding of disgust.

She observes: “Misogyny has always been the most socially acceptable hatred … Men who murder out of it are not viewed as representatives of a deep-seated, institutional blindness to the essential humanity, rights of and wellbeing of women. They are excused and explained away as weirdos and anomalies. Their hatred of women, their desire to do harm to their bodies, either physically or sexually is not taken seriously. It’s not even seen as hatred, and most often is considered to have been provoked in the first place.”

The disgust her book focuses on is more than just the terror we might feel around the consumption of pathogens. It is an “awareness of being defiled”. Why have we seen this disgust so strongly applied to women and their bodies?

To understand this, McBride looks at something commonly looked at with disgust: dirt. She quotes British anthropologist Mary Douglas, who in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, wrote: “If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place.”

Just as dirt is “matter out of place”, so are women who speak out, or fail to conform to the stereotypes set out for them.

It often feels as if McBride’s big thoughts and rangy sentences need more space to breathe. She roams over multiple current feminist issues from #MeToo to pornography, but where she is at her best is talking about this visceral aspect.

I was attracted to Something Out Of Place because it’s my own view that disgust of almost all types is to be resisted. Prior to reading it, I might have said that I don’t have a strong sense of disgust to resist.

But McBride’s polemic reminded me of the ways in which the absorbed disgust directed at women still lives in me. As McBride writes: “The disgust I have been writing about, which has been so successfully deployed in the war against women, making and naming our own places in the world, has succeeded in surrounding us and even managed to creep inside of us.”

I would have liked McBride to go further and deeper into this visceral subject, to dig around more in that dirt, because it’s this aspect that makes her book distinct as a feminist polemic.

I would also have liked her to look at what this “something out of place” might bring to our understanding of the toxic debate around trans rights, since both cis women and trans people of all gender identities, might be regarded as to greater or lesser degrees “out of place”.

But, those issues aside, this is an invigorating call to refuse the disgust directed at women at every turn. It’s also a reminder that it’s not about you, it’s the system, an aspect of patriarchy and a whole way of thinking that treats us women as this matter out of place – and that can only arm and strengthen us all.

Eimear McBride will be talking about her new book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Thursday (August 26)

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992