“I’m going to turn myself inside out to write this”, Maria Straw-Cinar writes, in the opening pages of her inventive, intimate novel, Girl, and “You need to listen cuz one thing I hate is people that don’t. Listen. You say something and they just railroad over your words like a truck full of petroleum hollering past a dying earth portent.” The apposite image and bossy instruction set us up beautifully for what follows, which is a little like being stuck on a bus next to a yelling maniac. Through the next 240 pages she darts from country to man to project, from poetry to mythology to theatre, in a breathless, visceral, surreal adventure, which rivals James Joyce’s Ulysses for its scope and ambition.
This is Straw-Cinar’s debut novel. She’s also a poet, which is evident from her use of language, and a playwright and actress, which makes sense too: this is a wonderfully visual book. It plays out before you like a theatrical piece, teasing and nurturing each of the senses. She references Chekhov a good deal, as her actor protagonist embodies and presents his works, and indeed this novel is reminiscent of Chekhov, funny, profound and absorbing.
Girl is a novel about identity – both that of the actor and also of her story. We peek anxiously through our fingers as she and it wander in every conceivable direction, in pursuit of meaning, coherence, consistency. In her urge to uncover herself she takes us through a whirlwind of references and characters, a kaleidoscopic collection of scenes, which range from the philosophical to the erotic. It’s a monument of words, a vast meditation on an anti-hero, who allows and encourages the reader alternately to identify with her and be horrified by her. She doesn’t write words so much as encompass words, speaking to herself, with herself, in the first person, and yet in an elaborate series of illusions and deceptions. It’s an identity crisis writ large, a public meltdown, in which you fear for her survival and sanity.
It’s also a tale of revenge. She seeks to destroy the men who hurt her, in the most brutal, bloody, surreal ways you can imagine, and spares us none of the details. We cheer her on even as we fear for her sanity, both at her quest and the urgency of her desire, and fear too for what will happen to her if she accomplishes it. It’s an extraordinary achievement for something so suffused with sex and death to yet remain so poetic, so intimate. I greatly look forward to seeing what Straw-Cinar accomplishes next.
© Melissa Todd 2020
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.