‘A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride

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‘I think your face the very best. When we were we were we were young. When you were little and I was girl. Once upon a time’.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride, Pg.171

McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, is like nothing I have ever read before. As she states, when winning the Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, ‘In writing the book I was consciously trying to do something new. I’m very interested in the modernist tradition. Finnegan’s Wake sort of signalled the end of literature, so I wanted to take a step back and try to find a new way forward’ (New Statesman). McBride does away with punctuation, other than full stops and the odd comma thrown in now and again. Her prose is littered with short, fragmented sentences – some of them only one word long. When I first started reading I was completely lost:

‘For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day’.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride, Pg.3

When I reached the end of the first chapter I was unsure of what I had read, what had just taken place. But, yes, the unnamed narrator has just been born, she was talking from her mother’s womb, and the unnamed ‘you’ is her older brother, suffering from a brain tumour that will cast a long, dark shadow over the rest of their lives. The writing style does get (slightly) easier to understand as the narrator grows up. There are often clear markers to indicate the passing of time – ‘Two me. Four you five or so’ (pg.7), ‘The beginning of teens us. Thirteen me fifteen sixteen you’ (pg.33) – and a lot of the prose is dialogue. I found the best way, for me, to read this highly experimental novel was to be taken along with the flow. A lot of the writing is quite poetic, like the first quote above (which also adorns the front cover of my edition), and even if you don’t understand every single word, the force of emotions certainly hits you hard.

As the blurb states: ‘It is not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconscious 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’. This is spot on. We encounter the narrator’s experiences through snatches of dialogue and glimpses of events which are internalised by the narrator at the time of them happening. There is no luxury of hindsight or time to reflect. The, often, fragmentary sentences haven’t been refined or reordered to make sense to the reader, though there are times when the prose is more coherent and lucid, but, equally, other times when it can be completely unintelligible. Perhaps this is what happens at times of intense trauma – we cannot fully make sense of what is happening, what has happened. I think this is why Eimear McBride’s debut novel cuts close to the bone, why it gets under the skin like no other book I have read before.

‘They were true God fearing in for a penny in for a pound. Milk soaked mackerel for every Friday night. Mass every morning for all children over three and the wrath of God for anyone saying Jesus out loud or even in your head. For what’s unsaid’s as bad as, if not worse. Saturday til afternoon dedicated to praying with his wife – when none of the little could enter without a big knock. Such worshipping worshipping behind the bedroom door. With their babies and babies lining up like stairs’.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride, Pg.12

The events that take place in A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing are easily recognisable in literature, particularly Irish literature. As Anne Enright states in her review on the Guardian website: ‘A ranting, Catholic mother, a disabled brother and a pervy uncle: these may be bog-gothic standards of any Irish book season’. However, McBride completely transforms these tropes, bringing with them something new, something raw. It feels as if the prose is driven by the narrator’s emotions. When she can make sense of, or have control over, her emotions, she is able to express herself clearly. However, when she can’t make sense of what is happening the sentences become more truncated, more jumbled and confused. There is one moment, towards the end of the book, where the prose just elapses into repeated sounds and the words, themselves, become jumbled up. It seems as if, when the subject matter becomes too difficult to handle, so does the writing.

‘You are behind. You are way behind in this. I see you lagging. I can see you limping off at the back but I’m getting very tired of looking around and in a bit I’ll leave you to the fates. She knows you but she does’t care and we are speaking less and less because. In all that you make me want to get away. It’s too much and you’re much too. Young. For me now. Is the simple truth. Where I’m going you cannot come’.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride, Pg.64

The relationship between the narrator and her brother dominates the majority of the story. They were close as children, however, as they grow up the narrator feels as if she is outgrowing him. She becomes distant and resentful of him, yet everything she does appears to be a direct result of her troublesome relationship with him. Her early sexual awakening at the tender age of thirteen (which is problematic in itself) and her continual consensual debasement at the hands of teenage boys and men throughout her young-adulthood is her way of escaping the cruel and inevitable fate that awaits her brother, and will one day wreck her life completely. At least she has control over her sexual encounters, though they do tend to verge on the side of masochistic:

‘And in the car the best. Warm and parked away. They’ll do what they can to me in here. On my knees I learn plenty – there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do’.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride, Pg.71

‘Put yourself on me then, in me. Pull all other things out. It’s no interest to me and. Throw me. Smash that all up. Do whatever you want. The answer to every single question is F**ck. Stitching up my eyes and sewing up my lips’.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride, Pg.131

I can’t really describe just how Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing left me feeling once I had turned over the last page. Although I felt tired, exhausted, saddened and heartbroken, at the same time I was elated by this incredible feat of a novel. I do tend to get emotionally invested in the stories I read but never before have I felt so close to the narrator, like I am literally inside their head witnessing and experiencing their pain as it happens. This was both difficult to read but a totally new experience and something I would encourage anyone to experience for themselves.

Here is a youtube clip of Eimear McBride reading from A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing at the Golsmiths Prize 2013:

 

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10 Replies to “‘A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride”

  1. Hi! Firstly, I received an email that you are now following me through Bloglovin’ at my VoyageOut blog. However, I no longer maintain that blog as I decided to combine The Voyage Out with my main blog http://womensprizeforfictionbookreview.wordpress.com/
    Meanwhile onto your review of Eimear McBride. I really enjoyed it even though I didn’t enjoy the book myself. My review is at the above mentioned blog. It always amazes me how two people can read a book but come away with different impressions and of course that is one of the wonderful things about reading and books. I’m off to look at some of your other reviews.

    1. Thank you for redirecting me! I look forward to catching up on your reviews of the shortlisted authors for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I have just finished ‘The Lowland’ and started ‘The Undertaking’!

  2. It was nothing like I’ve ever read before either. I’ve read fragments of Ulysses, but somehow though in the same vein, this was a totally different thing. I felt the length was perfect as well, long enough to get you into the style of writing, but short enough that it didn’t become confusing or overwhelming.

    Did you find that – as horrific as her life experiences were – that you sort of felt slightly desensitised as you were in her head. Something about her own rationalisation of the horror she experiences made it seem simultaneously less and more extreme.

    Can’t say it’s made me want to go out and explore more post-modernist literature, but it certainly was worth it’s short list selection.

    I look forward to your opinions on the last to short listed I have yet to read, if you like them I think I fairly likely I will.

    1. I think I did feel slightly desensitised and I felt that the narrator was also slightly detached from what she was experiencing. I think that’s probably why she kept putting herself in those situations which was really sad to read.

      I, too, have only read fragments of Ulysses and it is very different. Perhaps if Ulysses was shorter I would have made more of an effort to finish it and I think you’re right that the length of A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is just right. I don’t think I could have read much more of that style.

      I have finished The Lowland which I really enjoyed, I will write up my review tomorrow! I am halfway through The Undertaking and I have mixed opinions about that! Do you think you will attempt the last two books on the shortlist?

      1. I think so, but not till June when I get paid. It would be a shame not to really considering I’ve now read four. They’ve been shortlisted for a reason so maybe I’ll enjoy them.

  3. Love your review! This book is so extraordinary and your description of how you felt when you finished was exactly how I felt. I have also never felt so close to a narrator, which is why I found the experience of reading it almost traumatic (which is definitely not an emotion I’ve ever felt through reading before).

    Just spotted your review of The Lowland, which I am 2/3rds of the way through and it’s the last one on my list. I’m pretty sure Girl is a Half-Formed Thing would be my pick for the prize though at this stage although I’ve enjoyed them all really (to varying degrees) and I think it’s a very close call. I think it’s probably too experimental or harrowing to win though, I can imagine it’s a very marmite kind of book.

    1. Thank you! I felt like I was right inside the narrator’s head which was a very uncomfortable feeling. I think you may be right about A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing being a marmite kind of book. I would love for it to win though I think just being on the shortlist has opened many doors for McBride, especially when you consider how long it took her to get the novel published. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next!

      I am on my last book of the shortlist too – The Goldfinch! I look forward to reading your review of The Lowland.

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