A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. It has been described as “uncompromising in style and subject matter” and “an instant classic” by The Guardian; Anne Enright says of the book that it is “completely modern in its sensibility and completely old-fashioned in the way it triumphantly ignores the needs of the book market”; Caitlin Moran (goddess) hails McBride as having “arrived, and she’s it – she’s got the thing, the very thing we’re all waiting for.” An astonishing debut novel of risk, energy and creative dazzle – half-sound, half-colour”.
I couldn’t resist. I was attracted by the dark storyline, the controversial subject matter and the promise of a prose that would leave me “changed”. Let’s dive in and see what all the fuss is about.
First of all, don’t put too much faith in the dust jacket. While Faber & Faber have done a sterling job of tempting the reader in, the content wasn’t quite as I was led to believe. FF spend more time telling us about the style of the novel rather than what it’s about, which we get in 17 words of the opening sentence:
“…a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour.”
There is no warning about the deeply disturbing predatory uncle, the horrific self-destructive activities of the Girl, or the complicated nuances of a Catholic home in turmoil. Seriously, this is not a pleasant read. There should be a big red danger sign on the front cover, captioned with something along the lines of:
WARNING! WARNING! IF YOU ARE FEELING AT ALL DOWN OR HAD A ROUGH DAY OR YOUR CUPBOARDS ARE DEPLETE OF CHOCOLATE, WALK AWAY NOW. YOU MAY NOT SURVIVE THIS BOOK.
There. Considered yourself warned.
Second of all, believe everything you’ve read about McBride’s unique style. In this book she is most definitely reinventing the wheel, but replace the word wheel with novel. There have been many comparisons with Ulysses. I won’t be drawing any comparisons here because I have not had the pleasure yet.
This is a difficult read. I felt like giving up after the first paragraph, which goes like this:
“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.”
See? But I ain’t no quitter, and no book once started should ever be given up on. This is a philosophy that my brain sometimes hates me for…
While it is difficult to physically drag your eyeballs over the disjointed words and malformed sentences, McBride still somehow manages to communicate so very deeply with her reader.
Staccato bursts of words penetrate the very depths of you with the very depths of her. You are injected with her very being. You see what she sees and more importantly, FEEL what she feels. It’s invasive and violating, yes, but so is being cornered in the shed by your uncle of a cold morning while his wife and your family sleep in the house upstairs. When you are 13.
It’s not all staccato and no legato. Sometimes a sentence that lasts half a page sans punctuation pops up. On page 92 we are treated to 19 lines of desperate rant from the mother. You can’t escape it, you’re right there with her. It leaves you breathless, even as you read in your head.
Having said all of that, the style of prose is my favourite feature of this book and I’ll tell you for why. It’s believable. All too often, I’ve come to the end of a beautifully written scene, put the book down and thought, “No. That just wouldn’t have happened. I don’t believe any of that occurred in the way that it was portrayed and I am mightily disappointed now.”
Let me illustrate this further with a very frustrating example. I am going to pick on Bram Stoker and his classic, “Dracula”. Does anyone actually believe that while single handedly battling a ferocious storm at sea, the captain found the time and the wherewithal to find a loom of paper, and a pen, painfully strap his hands to the wheel so that he wouldn’t be tossed overboard, and then proceed to pen an elaborate account of his misgivings re the fact that all his crew had gone awry and oh by the way there might potentially be a blood sucking monster on board the vessel. THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN, BRAM STOKER (PS. DESPITE THIS HUGE ERROR I STILL LOVE YOU). No one would have any amount of vocabulary that did not include swear words at such a time. Plus, the paper that it was written on wouldn’t have survived. It’s just not feasible.
McBride does not make this mistake. She describes the language she uses as “the moment just before language becomes formatted thought”. She expands on this further in The Guardian, “I’m interested in trying to dig out parts of human life that cannot be expressed in a straightforward way, that don’t fit neatly into the vocabulary and grammar that are available. To do that you have to make language do something else.”
…or don’t. S’up to you. I don’t know how she’s done it, but by seemingly throwing a load of words onto a page in no clear format at all, McBride has created a world, that is not just accessible but positively drags you in, surrounds and infiltrates you. Her innovative approach to language is sometimes shocking, but it’s the only way that we can genuinely experience the whole of the character.
The language does get more bearable as you read on. It was when I found myself choking back unsolicited sobs while sitting at the brother’s hospital bedside that I realised I’d stopped stressing about the disjointed sentences and grammar and was truly engaged in the story.
If you want to stretch your reading muscles and are not afraid of delving into some very dark and murky themes, give it a go. But for goodness sake, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK ON YOUR LUNCHBREAK AT WORK.