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Eimear McBride, A girl is a half-formed thing (Review)

November 26, 2014

Eimear McBride, A girl is a half-formed thingI try very hard when writing reviews to avoid clichés and superlatives, like, say, “achingly beautiful” or “masterful”. But I think I’m going to use one for Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning debut novel A girl is a half-formed thing when I describe it as “searing”. I can’t think of a more apposite word. Yet I fear it too has been over-used to the point of meaninglessness. So, let’s try something else …

Once again I’m coming late to the read, and once again this is partly because it was scheduled by my reading group. All I can say is, wow. I’m not sure I’d go so far as Eleanor Catton’s “read it and be changed” commendation on the front of my edition, but I do agree with her  “virtuosic” and “subversive”. It’s a gut-wrenching read.

The plot itself is simple enough. It’s the story of a family – a pious one-could-say-religiously-fanatical mother, a son who survived a serious brain tumour as a toddler, and the younger daughter. The tumour leaves the son somewhat brain-damaged and, of course, it returns. This tumour, the trauma of it, shapes their behaviour and defines their relationships. The story, which spans around 20 years, is told through the daughter and could, in one sense, be seen as coming-of-age. But. This. Tells. You. Nothing. Because …

This is not your typical first-person voice. Instead, we are in the head of the unnamed “girl”. We are there in her conscious unconsciousness (or, is it her semi-consciousness?) in which we hear what she’s experiencing in language that is – here’s another cliché – raw. By this I mean that the language is stripped of the mediation of a formalising narrator’s intellect. Instead it captures the immediate emotional truth of the girl’s experience as she grapples to make sense of her world. This is a book in which the style conveys the meaning as much as the words do.

How does McBride do this you are probably wondering (unless, of course, you’ve already read the book). Well, mostly by breaking, consistently, the rules of grammar and syntax. We are in the girl’s head, a place where, I believe McBride is saying, we rarely think in coherently formed sentences but in what I would call “impressions”. Take, for example, this description, on the first page, of the brother before his diagnosis:

I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.

To orient you, “she” is Mammy, “he” is the father who disappears two pages later, and “you” are the little boy, the girl’s brother. Most of the novel is addressed to him (that is “you”). One of the challenges of reading this book, and it is a challenge to read, is its pronouns. Once you’ve got a handle on them, and once you realise that they are all from the perspective of the girl, you are half way there.

Anyhow, there is easier syntax than the above when life is relatively calm but, when our “girl” is distressed such as when the truth of her brother’s situation can no longer be avoided, it collapses almost completely:

I walk the street. City. Running through my mouth. Running in my teeth the. My eyes are. All the things. The said the done what there what’s all this? That stuff. I could do. My. I walk the street. Who’s him there having a look at me he. Look at my. Tits. Ssss. Fuck word. No don’t. Fuck that. No. Will. Not that. Not. That. But. If I want to then I can do.

This is not the most extreme example – I don’t want to spoil too much – but it should demonstrate what I mean by the language mirroring/enacting/even being her state of mind.

In addition to the idiosyncratic syntax, McBride draws on wide range of literary techniques to keep us focused on, grounded in the emotions of the here and now. The imagery is visceral, returning again and again to  “muck”, “dirt”, “blood”, and “puke”. She alters her rhythms to match the tone, not only through the syntax as evident in the examples above, but through allusions to and repetitions of prayers and hymns, lines from children’s games, literary works and sayings. She makes up new words (“I trup trup off behind her”), mangles existing words (“swoll” for “swollen”), and twists common expressions (“There’s a foul there’s a wind where’s the air”). McBride was inspired by Joyce she says, but her fresh, fearless, urgent language reminded me too at times of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The novel is clearly set in Ireland and there are odd references to 1980s technology like Game Boys, but overall place and time are unspecified, and none of the characters are named. All this keeps the focus squarely on the emotional core of a family in pain, and the girl in particular. She is abused by her uncle at the age of thirteen and begins a strange love-hate, violent-tender, but sick, relationship with him. Sex becomes for her a weapon, a tool and a punishment. But the book is not about this, that is, it’s not yet another book about abuse. It is about the girl’s inability to handle her emotional pain, and her family’s inability to see her need, it’s about growing up unsupported. She is complicit in her own degradation because for her physical pain is better than the emotional. Like those who self-harm, she seeks out abuse again and again because

… what’s wrong here is me me me. Me the thing but I. Think I know. Is that the reason for what’s happened? Me? The thing. Wrong.

I know this all sounds unremittingly bleak and it largely is, but there are light touches – blackly comic scenes, surprising word plays, and chuckle-inducing descriptions (like her mother’s friends, “they polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue”).

A girl is a half-formed thing is hard to read style-wise and painful to read content-wise. But it is a book that, if you let it, reaches deep into your core and makes you understand the lives of others in a way that only the best literature can. I’m so very glad I read it.

John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante also liked it.

Eimear McBride
A girl is a half-formed thing
London: Faber and Faber, 2014
ISBN: 9780571317165

45 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne Fenn permalink
    November 26, 2014 10:45

    Thanks for a great review. I loved this novel, but it seems quite a few readers fear it is too hard or too sad. Hearing passages read aloud by Eimar on RN ‘s Books and Arts Daily made the humour and meaning come brilliantly to life for me, so I had a very positive attitude to it. It would be a great audio book if you wanted to read it but struggle with the text.

    • November 26, 2014 10:55

      I think you’re right Anne, It’s a book you have to “hear”. I think if you try to “read” it, you get lost. I do tend to try to “hear” and “feel” words as I read. I agree that it would be perfect for an audiobook.

      Glad you liked it too – I must say I was in the minority in my reading group (because, as you say, it was hard and/or sad)

  2. November 26, 2014 12:05

    I will definitely give it another go. I tried, but only got a few pages in before putting it aside when I had more mental energy. I know I’ll love it when I get into it because I can’t resist a book that is different, and makes you work hard and think.

    • November 26, 2014 12:15

      Yes, some books do need the right mental energy I agree, Louise. You know this, I’m sure, but my recommendation is to not worry at the beginning, you can always go back later, and just get into the flow. Have you heard the RN Interview from this year’s SWF? She read quite a few passages, as Anne above says, and that gives a good sense of the “ear” needed I think.

  3. November 26, 2014 13:16

    Beautifully described. It is a book that gets inside you, and I needed to have a break from reading it, as I found it very painful at times. But it is very poignant and arresting, and I am also glad I read it!

    • November 26, 2014 14:46

      Oh I’m glad you did Kate. I felt you had – probably only the two of us! I’ve been looking at it again today and it really is beautiful (despite the pain of what she put herself – and us! – through). And, thanks for your comment.

  4. November 26, 2014 15:12

    Really excellent review as usual Whispering, and alright, I suppose I’m proud of myself for having read the whole book and suffering through the whole horrible ordeal with her. I understand that it is good to stretch the boundaries of one’s experience and understanding and that this is usually painful. Does the fact that it’s an ordeal add some intrinsic merit to a book in some way though?

    • November 26, 2014 16:07

      Hmm … That’s a good question Bushmaid. I don’t think it should automatically. Hmmm … Before I go on, do you mean ordeal content-wise or style-wise? For me, something that is difficult to read style-wise feels like an achievement when I’ve read it, like making a quick mix cake versus a triple-decker from scratch. But that’s not about merit. I do think there’s merit in creators trying something new, pushing the boundaries, waking us up. Even if it doesn’t fully work, though I think this one does.

      I love Mozart, but I don’t want to go to a concert that’s only Mozart. I also want to give hearing to new composers. I hate the idea of getting to the end of my life having only heard Mozart and read Austen. I don’t, I suppose, engage in the arts to be (only) entertained. I like to be challenged even though it’s often not easy or fun. And if I’ve been challenged I feel good! Have I answered the right question?

  5. November 26, 2014 17:06

    Thanks for that review. I was very interested in your opinion.
    I heard the author reading a few paragraphs at the Sydney Writers Festival. They were brilliant. Strong images, punchy bits of sentences. A genius I thought. I could not wait to read it.

    But, by the time I got to page fifty, the impact evaporated. it became like a symphony which repeats the same brilliant stormy phrase over and over again. The unfinished sentences became just bad grammar, the staccato delivery nonsensical.

    The story is relentlessly bleak. By page sixty six I had had enough.

    • November 26, 2014 17:26

      That’s funny (oh, that doesn’t sound good, does it) Gabrielle because the member of my reading group who recommended it did so on the basis of hearing the RN broadcast of that interview, and thought it sounded interesting. She admitted at our meeting that she couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t greatly loved at our group, I must say. But for me, it never did become bad grammar. I felt the rhythm ebbed and flowed – there were times of calm with longer fragments and a slower rhythm, and times of more frenetic rhythm with one and two word fragments. I like your symphony analogy except for me I think it did have different movements. In fact I’ve been envisaging it as three acts – but now I’m thinking maybe three movements!!

      I picked it up again this afternoon and looked at random paragraphs and found them – most anyhow – so delicious, so moving. I did though cry when I read it. It’s bleak (but there are touches of humour, which I might share in a follow up post to give a real sense of her language.)

  6. November 26, 2014 17:18

    Does it have to be an ordeal to be challenging? Can’t we be challenged without being harrowed? The music analogy doesn’t quite work for me as I’m just bored by music that doesn’t speak to me – and even Mozart had off days. I’d have liked this book better if it had only been boring. I guess I’m talking about the content and not the style.

    • November 26, 2014 17:58

      No, Bushmaid, it doesn’t have to be an ordeal to be challenging. I wasn’t sure what sort of “ordeal” you were talking about – but now I realise it’s the content. All sorts of contents can be challenging I think . Did I say anywhere that all challenge has to be harrowing? If I did, I’m sorry. Flann O’Brien (an Irishman as you may know) is a challenge to read – but his work is satirical and strange. Hmm, now I think about it, part of the challenge is the style. Perhaps I need to hear from you an example of content that is challenging and not harrowing. I can think of many examples of challenging style – some harrowing some not – but I can’t right now think of challenging content that’s not harrowing.

      However, the bottom line is I refuse to refuse to read harrowing material (though I don’t want a steady diet of it of course – give me Northanger Abbey too!) My attitude is that if people have to experience such things in their lives, the least I can do is to read (or watch if a movie) and try to understand. (And hope that’s all I ever have to do.)

  7. November 26, 2014 17:21

    And I wish I’d said what Gabrielle said! Spot on!

    • November 26, 2014 18:13

      But you didn’t! And you finished it – like the good reading group member you are!

  8. November 26, 2014 18:54

    OK, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet explored a foreign place long ago. It was cleverly recreated and at times the content was challenging as people lived very differently there and then. It had a couple of harrowing moments but I survived them and still loved it.
    What if you’ve already spent enough harrowing hours talking to real people in all the terrible pain imaginable? Also surely life is sometimes adequately harrowing/challenging so that you can avoid harrowing novels and tell yourself that it’s not just because you’re a wuss…
    That’s it. I knew it would be about guilt! And now it’s DEFINITELY time for Jane Austen 🙂

    • November 26, 2014 19:35

      That’s very true about one’s own life – there are times when certain works are not appropriate. I totally agree with that. I thought though that we were talking about a general viewpoint or attitude to reading.

      Now, agree, onto Austen. Two classics in a 6 months schedule next year – you should be happy!! Meanwhile, enjoy Lady Susan.

  9. November 26, 2014 19:33

    Hey yes I did finish it! Will take a brownie point AND read Jane Austen 🙂

  10. November 26, 2014 22:37

    Dazzling review WG! Yet again. And even with the brief quotes from the book – yes, I was thinking GMH, too! Will purchase/download the book. Finished Don WATSON The Bush last week. Now reading Barrie CASSIDY’s Private Bill – and Alex BORAINE What’s Gone Wrong (On the brink of a Failed State) with intro by Desmond TuTu who worked with Boraine on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa!

    • November 26, 2014 22:41

      Thanks Jim … I’ve dropped a hint re a don Watson for Xmas. We’ll see what happens. Let me know what you think about Mc Bride if or when you get to it.

  11. November 26, 2014 23:29

    Fab review, Sue. I occasionally read the final few pages to remind me of how powerful this book is. John.

    • November 27, 2014 08:37

      I can understand that John. Any page you dip into, pretty much, makes you want to keep reading. My daughter wants to borrow my copy but I want to have it next to me for a couple more days!

  12. November 27, 2014 02:01

    Wonderful wonderful review! I wanted to badly to finish this in time but I still have about 80 pages left. I was going to rush through them but decided no, this book cannot be rushed! I love the narrative style. It is stream of consciousness updated in a way. Much closer I think to how we think and feel than Joyce or Woolf, gorgeous as their writing is, ever got. Bravo! What did your book group think?

    • November 27, 2014 08:47

      Thanks Stefanie. Yes, I just loved the flow, the sense and feeling of it. As for my reading group, no, not many liked it. Two, no, I think three, of the seven of us who’d started it. I was probably the only one enraptured, but two really appreciated it. Some couldn’t finish it. I look forward to your review.

  13. November 27, 2014 04:53

    I think your review captures the essence of this book perfectly – it’s not so much a book you read as a book you experience. I can’t say I enjoyed it as the content just didn’t allow that reaction in me – but it’s one of those very special books I read that leave me thinking I’m so bloody glad I did!

    • November 27, 2014 08:51

      Thanks Col … That’s a good way of saying it, a book you experience. Words like “enjoy” are tricky to use about grim things … But yes, I don’t think I could say I enjoyed it, but I could say I loved it. Very special as you say.

  14. November 27, 2014 09:57

    An excellent, comprehensive review, and some terrific comments too! I think the point about readers not wanting to subject themselves to pain in a work of art is a valid one – if I’m reading bushmaid’s comment correctly. And I also think that for those who found the book magnificent and a true tour de force – I’m one of them – the answer might lie in our having got ourselves ‘inside’ the language and stayed there. Once you’re in that girl’s head and heart, the compulsion to keep reading is very strong.

  15. November 27, 2014 10:51

    Yes, you are reading Bushmaid correctly I believe, Dorothy. And yes, you’re right, it’s valid.

    Another recent book that the issue of pain comes up with is The narrow road to the deep north. I can see people not wanting to read it, but for me that book taught me so much about an experience I’d read a lot about, seen a little in movies, but Flanagan’s depiction brought it completely home to me, viscerally – the daily never-endingness of it, and, beyond all the arguments of inhumanity and cruelty, the stunning irrationality of it (the task, the expecting men to be able to work in such conditions, in such poor health and with such minimal nutrition.). Flanagan made that live and breathe; it reached so deeply into my emotions that from now on I will “understand” that part of our history and never forget it. (Even though I may not “know” the names of the places, the people, the numbers, etc.)

    I think you are right regarding getting inside the language of Girl – like you, I found her voice utterly compelling. I was willing her on, writing “oh no” occasionally in my marginalia (though I gave up on that after a while!), all the while fearing she wasn’t going to break loose. It’s delicious writing isn’t it. But, if you couldn’t get into that voice then you’d be completely lost. It really is all deeply in the language.

  16. November 27, 2014 17:08

    A very thorough and intelligent review as always, WG. Really don’t know how you do it, week after week, sometimes more than once a week, and this is one of your best. I haven’t read the book yet, but just from the excerpts I immediately thought – Joyce! And was interested to read later on that Maguire herself spoke of him being an inspiration. I’ve been working on a post about him that I hope to get up in the next few days so that piqued my interest even more.

    As for ‘hard’ or ‘challenging’ versus ‘engaging’ or ‘entertaining’ – I think there’s room for all. I’m only discouraged when the same tired things are said about the same old cookie-cutter kinds of books. What’s encouraging enough to offset these bouts of despair is the fact that good books are out there now and have been for some time and I suspect will be so for a while. That’s the real wonder of it, against such odds.

    • November 27, 2014 17:11

      Whoops. McBride not Maguire. Even the name is a challenge! But one I’m girding myself for.

      • November 27, 2014 23:47

        Why thanks Sara … I’m interested in your saying it’s one of my best because it was one of the easier ones for me to write. It still took me some time but that time was in tweaking not in trying to frame my thoughts. Something just clicked with this book that I knew exactly what I wanted to say and the order, pretty much, in which to say it. Some reviews I struggle over – and sometimes I think it tells!

        I look forward to your post on Joyce. I’ve been thinking for a while that I must read him again. Probably go back to one of the three I’ve read (i.e. not tackle Finnegan’s Wake) I think.

        Yes, I agree there’s room for all types of literature too – none of us probably wants a diet of just one type. All I ask – for me, that is – is that the “entertaining” ones (meaning, I guess, popular light reads) be well-written with good characters and an interesting plot. In recent times I think Toni Jordan’s Addition and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project have achieved this. Light, fun, but intelligent. Not cliched, not prosaic, not stereotyped or slavishly formulaic.

        I don’t think we need to despair re good books. As long as there are readers for them – and I really can’t see that changing – I think there’ll be writers and publishers. Has it every really been very different? Perhaps there have been little rosy pockets, but I think “good” literature has always had to fight for itself?

  17. November 27, 2014 17:33

    Just a correction. I do not avoid harrowing stories, the opposite. (I only read one book by Jane Austen. And that was enough). Richard Flanagan’s book however is definitely for me.

    McBride’s book has rape, incest, terminal cancer and death by suicide and by brain tumor.
    Not bad for 240 pages.

    It is fiction of course, but you have to ask why does she include so many shocking events (and not much else) in one story. To make you cry?

    The story is told by a young girl who had a brain tumor. And the author does it convincingly for a while, although you have to ask how realistic this story is since she has never been inside such a head.

    It made me think that it was about Mc Bride, her feelings as a young girl.

    Eventually the story becomes forced, artificial. At least it did to me.

    • November 27, 2014 17:42

      Sorry I meant and brain tumour not death by brain tumour

      • November 28, 2014 00:05

        Thanks Gabrielle for clarifying that – because I did wonder given my reading of your memoir and some of the things you and your family experienced.

        Girl does have those things you list – though I need to correct you and say the girl doesn’t have the tumour, it’s her brother. I don’t think she wrote it to make us cry (though I did!). I think she wanted to say something about what a struggle it can be for a girl (in this case) to grow up whole and healthy, about how poor family modelling, misapplied/unforgiving religion, lack of empathy or support can harm – and in this situation lead to self-harm through promiscuous/abasing/dangerous sex. These are self-evident I suppose – then again most themes are probably self-evident when you express them in a sentence or too! I think McBride manages to convey the complexity of this girl’s behaviour and of her response to her life and environment – her mix of tenderness, anger, guilt, self-absorption.

        I can see though that I will need to work on you re Austen! She is wonderfully astute, and sometimes acerbic, about human nature. Every time I read her I see something else that she’s observed or skewered about people.

        • November 28, 2014 16:48

          Ooops! Its embarrassing. Thanks for the correction.
          I did not engage with this book. The sixty pages I read – six months ago – are a bit fuzzy.
          I mostly remember her unusual writing style, her hate for the church and of her mother.
          And my disappointment.

  18. November 27, 2014 18:18

    I read an interview with McBride where she talks about Joyce quite a bit – maybe the same one you read, Sara? Certainly, her revulsion with the Catholic church is very similar to his, and Ireland depicted as the ‘old sow that eats her farrow’ – this quote could well apply to McBride. A deep bitterness there, and it makes you wonder about how much has changed in 100 years. And thanks for the clarification, Gabrielle.

    • November 28, 2014 00:09

      Oh yes, Dorothy, this book – probably set in the 1980s – does make you wonder how much has changed, particularly in regard to the hold of the church over people’s lives. One of the most poignant scenes is that deathbed scene where the girl begs her mother not to let the holy joes in. Couldn’t you just feel her pain.

  19. November 28, 2014 20:31

    That’s OK Gabrielle – I just thought that it would be good for you to know if you were to talk about the book again. I realised that it was an indication of the fact that you really didn’t engage! I really appreciate that you engaged in the discussion!

  20. December 5, 2014 04:52

    That’s a brilliant review WG, one of the best of this book I’ve seen actually. I plan to read this myself before the year’s out and am even more excited about it now.

    Nice tips regarding pronouns too.

    • December 5, 2014 08:40

      That’s true praise Max. Thanks a lot. As I think I said in response to Sara, I found this review one of the easier to write. I look forward to hearing, well reading, your response when you get to it.

    • December 5, 2014 10:31

      BTW Max, if you are still reading, when I say regarding the pronouns that they are all from the perspective of the girl, there is a complexity there in the fact that sometimes she’s reflecting the conversations of others, as she hears them, so the pronouns can sometimes be from the speaker’s perspective. I hope this makes sense.

  21. Deepika Ramesh permalink
    March 7, 2016 08:34

    Sue, I am now here, because I finished three chapters, and I felt lost. I remember you telling me that you reviewed this book. So, I dropped by to know what you thought of it, and to seek some support to continue reading it.

    When I finished the third chapter, I still couldn’t grasp the story. I could gather some parts only because of the synopsis. I am finding it hard, Sue. But, since it is critically acclaimed, and deeply loved by passionate readers, I don’t want to abandon it. I want to try again tomorrow morning, when my brain is fresh.

    And, your review is beautiful. I am always in awe of your ability to offer sharp analyses. Thank you for this. I also enjoyed reading all the comments.

    I will try again with an open mind tomorrow.

    • March 7, 2016 08:55

      Thanks Deepika. I must say most of my reading group didn’t like it – but a few of us did. I think it is a book that you need to be fresh to read. Try to not worry too much about details and let it flow. Check the internet – I have a feeling I’ve heard her reading an excerpt or two as that might help you get into the flow too, because I think that’s the clue – the flow.

      But, do give up if you try again and it doesn’t work. Life’s too short and it’s not like there’s a shortage of great things to read is there!

      • Deepika Ramesh permalink
        March 7, 2016 09:00

        Thank you, Sue. I will try finding an audio-excerpt. And, thank you for all the support. I really want to read this book. I barely abandon books. In truth, I have abandoned only two — Catch 22, and Men are from Mars… It’s been six years since I changed. So, I want to approach this book in the right away. 🙂

        • March 7, 2016 13:50

          Good for you, then Deepika. I don’t give up much on books either, but I see no problems doing so if it really isn’t working for you!

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