Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, has finally seen its day. The winner of the Desmond Elliot Prize, Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction, and numerous other awards, is a darkly thrilling coming-of-age story of an Irish girl trapped in a life bent on killing her before she becomes an adult.
The narrator is the eponymous Half-formed Girl. None of the characters are given names, though it quickly becomes clear that the plot centers on the narrator’s mother and brother, as well as various extended family (mostly men) who show up, it seems, to disrupt an already turbulent fatherless household.
The narrator’s brother, who lives with the threat of a brain tumor’s return, is a few years older than his sister. The book begins darkly, with the narrator’s visceral childhood account of her brother’s first surgery. Their relationships with the remaining visible scar define much of their relationship with one another; it is a visible reminder of the violence of their shared childhood, as well as a promise of what the future holds.
McBride has mentioned in interviews that it was never her intention to make the relationship between the narrator and her brother the center of the novel. This makes sense, as that particular relationship is the one most fraught with ambiguity. Where there is a fierce familial bond, there is also a deep uncertainty about what constitutes bravery in a house filled with sadness, abuse and discord.
The narrator’s mother moves them to a new town where their family history is unknown, affording them all the chance at a fresh start. Where her brother finds ways to work the scar’s backstory to his benefit, the narrator allows it to define her existence. Finding herself vacillating between his protector and bully at school, she is more than willing to be shed of her brother’s influence when she adopts her own burgeoning identity. Unfortunately, this new identity begins to take shape at the hands of an abusive uncle.
“It’s my great work,” says the narrator, soon after discovering that sex is available to her around every corner. “At the lake then two more on the late Saturday night where they would pass me hand to hand if I would go. I would not. Maybe next week maybe next time.” This is the legacy of independence that years of abuse have left her. Instead of suffering the threatening surprises her family has to offer her, she instead engineers her own abuse at the hands of outsiders. There is little to hang on to in regard to the exact time and place of the novel (for an American reader), though scant references to late Eighties electronics like a Gameboy and a Discman provide us a decade. It matters little, however, because the interior is far more compelling than the exterior.
Much has been made of McBride’s use of language in A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing—the musical, glottal, the impossible. It is a defining element of the book, and provides McBride the freedom to explore shifts in experience as they occur for the narrator: a sexual experience might also be a dream; a fight may also become a prayer; a death may find its way into animal form. As the narrator ages, her prose carries more nuance and fewer impressions. However, nowhere in the book is there any sort of traditional dialogue, sentence, or paragraph structure. Though the five sections are titled, the titles do little to telegraph what to expect from the coming pages. The immediacy of the prose is one of the most uncomfortable and pleasurable aspects of the novel. The narrator provides us access to every thought and sensory experience. Her world is both wondrous and cruel, and not for the not light of heart. Even the everyday takes on a sinister light in the narrator’s voice:
We sliced through that fug school bus. So misfortunately new. Thicken soup-ish teenage sweat and cigarette boys slop always at the back. Held tight my rucksack filled with rattling tins of pends. Fat drizzle blotch through the polyester skirt I sideways slope to walk in. Felt my hormones long to s link quiet out of these hard eyes. Do not be seen. Do not see me. But I must turn myself to the great face of girls.
There is something insidious about the family unit in A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. Catholic imagery abounds in the house of the narrator, and the Holy Family functions as both comfort and object of aggression. As a child, the narrator sees her own family reflected in the story of the Holy Family, imagining that God, the missing father, inflicts the wounds that bring Jesus’ death on the cross. On her belly with a coloring book in front of her, she draws in wound after wound on his body, challenging finally: “How bad was it Jesus? Mr. Jesus Christ.”
Her own experience with abuse at the hands of her mother is varied and inconsistent, so as she grows into a teenager, The Holy Mother Mary takes on the giant’s share of the narrator’s unexpressed rage. In one scene, the narrator is in the car with her mother, holding a statue of the Virgin that is in “rotation because it comes from Lourdes.” When her mother begins to lay into her brother, the narrator breaks the statue on the dashboard and throws it out the window. Ultimately, the religiosity in the book only contributes to the narrator’s world of inescapable pain and loneliness, instead of offering her the hope and grace intended.
McBride spent the better part of a decade trying to get the book published, but a fortuitous relationship with American author Elizabeth McCracken (An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Thunderstruck and Other Stories), finally put the novel into the right hands. Rooted in the language of James Joyce and the spirit of Edna O’Brien, McBride’s narrative is uniquely suited to the Irish experience of the late twentieth century. Best devoured in a short period of time, this novel is gorgeous, unforgettable, and difficult in all the best ways.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, by Eimear McBride. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press. 227 pages. $24.00, paper.
Jack Kaulfus is a 2007 graduate from the MFA program at Texas State University in San Marcos, and has recently completed his first book-length collection of short fiction. He’s been published in Barrelhouse Online, A cappella Zoo, FAWLT magazine, Devilfish Review, and other places both online and in print.