People often ask what I’m reading, and it usually opens up a good conversation. I enjoy having the space to verbally sort out what I think, and if the conversation is with a certain type of person, I can be challenged to justify my assertions. It’s too easy to say something on here without questioning why I feel that way – an awful habit for a would-be critic, and one I’m trying to remedy.
Those “What are you reading?” conversations have been difficult ones while I’ve been reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The main challenge comes from explaining the form of the novel.
McBride writes (in this work, at least) in fragmented sentences:
“That long night. Loams my eyes. Burn. Lime it. I’ll do. I’ll. Reach out through it. Catch it before it comes. Quick quick. But it’s gone like a rat. Burrow deep and dark where I cannot go. I have. Nothing against this. No defence at all. But. To fall on the spindle. To be turned into the darkness. To be turned into stone.”
Why this fragmented, choppy language? I’m not entirely sure. Possibly because that’s what we all feel like inside, especially during times of intense trauma, which is exactly what the story of this book centres upon. It’s a unique and challenging reading experience. As with any formally-experimental work, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a shock to begin with – I worried that it would never make any sense. But there are two kinds of “challenging” books: those that are simply baffling from beginning to end, and those whose rhythm and logic the reader can fall into step with. By three pages in, it was clear that this novel falls into the latter category.
I’ve touched on form and language first because it’s the most obvious thing that sets the novel apart. It’s what people will notice when they pick it up. However, it’s not the only remarkable thing about the work.
The “Girl” of the story is its narrator, and the story spans her young life, between birth and her young adulthood. The focus of the story is her relationship with her brother (referred to throughout as “you”), who recovers from a brain tumour as a child, but relapses as an adult. The brother’s illness is a looming presence in the Girl’s life. This way of referring to characters with such immediacy (pronouns and very specific labels) – “I”, “you”, “Mammy”, “aunt”, “uncle” – has the effect of pulling everything inwards, almost uncomfortably close.
Family dynamics are explored wonderfully in this novel, in a way that most people will be able to relate to in some way. From the love-hate tension that can only be felt toward your parents, to the nonsensical regression that our siblings bring out in us as adults. Incest is also a major issue explored in the story, and the narrator’s shifting opinion of what’s happening makes the situation all the more confronting.
Sex and sexuality feature prominently, and McBride beautifully considers the many and varied roles it can play in a person’s life. At various times, the Girl uses sex to control people, and uses the powerlessness of sex to escape from the pain of her life. Sex functions here as a tool, and a means to both gain and lose the upper hand. By the end of the novel, being “fucked and hurt” is the point, and the immense sadness of this can be confronting.
I applaud Eimear McBride’s bravery. This is not a safe novel, and doesn’t tell a safe story. As a debut novelist, it’s a brave move. It has paid off.
As a book seller, I’m having trouble conveying the pleasures of this book to people – they open it up and panic at its structure and language. They think they’ll need to be very switched on in order to read it – not so. I hope this review convinces you to pick it up and give it a go – it’s well worth your while.