Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Eimear McBride
Text Publishing

There is nothing particularly new about novels of illicit love, sexual awakening, and the mental unravelling of a girl in a difficult situation.  What is new about A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is it's style.  This short novel is written entirely as a stream of consciousness; it is a jumble of thoughts, feelings and speech as well as impressions on the part of the unnamed female narrator.  Peppered throughout the text are moments of higher lucidity which serve to orient the reader.  At first, this style is alienating and even somewhat annoying.  It is a book that requires patience and concentration- but not only that.  This is a book which deserves your patience and understanding.  As Anne Enright from the Guardian is quoted as saying on the front, McBride is a genius, and this book is an 'instant classic.'

To read my synopses and analysis of the book (contains spoilers) please read on.

The story begins when the narrator is a child.  She is confused and scared because her older brother is in hospital being treated for a brain tumour.  It becomes apparent as time goes on that the girl is very close to her older brother and loves him more than anyone else.  Her mother dotes on the brother and is often indifferent to the girl, who has nothing wrong with her physically to explain her sometimes bad behaviour.  When the tumour goes into remission, the children move to a small Irish country village and change schools.  There, the brother experiences short lived popularity by lying about the origins of his scars.  He becomes distant from his sister, and she feels completely alone.

When one of her mother's sisters comes to visit them she brings her handsome and charming husband with her.  The girl and her uncle are drawn to one another but as the girl is only about 13/14, she is confused by the nature of these feelings, despite longing for the attention.  When the uncle finally gives in to his urges and the two have sex, the girl mistakes her feelings for love.  She begins to have multiple emotionless sexual encounters with anyone who she can (mostly people from school) and this drives her further apart from her mother and brother.  She moves away from them and continues to see her uncle but is compelled to come home, first by the death of her maternal grandfather and then by the return of her brother's tumour.  By now she is so alienated by her family that her mother thinks she is selfish and callous.  The girl is angry, and only wants to be with her brother.  After he passes, she encounters someone she has previously had sex with and he tries to compel her to do it again.  When she says no, he beats her.  At home, she is derided for spoiling the day of her brother's death with more bad behaviour and her mother cries out in a fit of pique that she wished the girl, and not her brother, had been the one to die.  The girl takes off.

Obviously this is a very emotionally charged plot and the style of writing mirrors that.  At calm moments where the girl is learning new things about people, places and herself, the text is more even, and almost makes sense, but at moments of intense fear the pace picks up until it is almost a collection of words and sounds, for example when the girl is raped and beaten immediately after her brother's death.  This pattern seems to mimic perhaps breathing, or the beating of a heart.  It makes the reader feel like perhaps they are the girl, or watching her from a privileged position inside the head.  It also distances the character a little from what she is saying, because she does not need to analyse her life, merely experience it in an immediate fashion.

I think this book is very brave and very risky, because I can understand how it would be incredibly difficult to edit and perfect, but I commend the author and the publishing team for a remarkable achievement.

Four and a half stars.