I wrote this review a year or so ago when I was doing my MA Dissertation and I forgot about it until now. Why publish it now? Because I recently read Deborah Kay Davies’ Reasons She Goes to the Woods (2014), which is another fantastic novel about a young girl, coming of age, and mental health, to put it elementarily, and I felt that the two books had some themes in common. This is not to say that they are similar. They are not. I repeat: they are not similar. But they have “unconventional” layout and writing style and both play with the concept of sibling relationships amongst other things. So, I’m publishing it again with some revisions, because this book is definitely worth raving about. Apologies in advance for the informal tone of this review – I don’t usually do this, but a year ago I was a newbie to book reviews and still find this a difficult book to review.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.”
So begins Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. It won Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, along with The Goldsmiths Prize, The Desmond Elliott, and The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award. It took her 6 months to write it and 9 years to get it published (make note, writers). The novel is about a young girl’s growth to a young adult, with a childhood overshadowed by her brother’s brain tumour, a strict Catholic mother, a dysfunctional family, an abusive uncle, and a string of unhealthy and anonymous sexual encounters.
Written in this intensely personal, jagged, stream-of-consciousness style, the novel depicts an isolated and vulnerable young girl, trying to make sense of the world around her. Pronouns such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘my friend’, ‘those boys’, ‘lads’, ‘Uncle’, ‘Mammy’ are used to define other characters from her point of view as opposed to names. Even the protagonist’s own name is not revealed. ‘You’ becomes her brother, disabled and scarred by the tumor which resurfaces. Among all these pronouns there is a sense of an impersonal, and a detachment from the people in the protagonist’s life. Yet McBride paints a very vivid picture of the characters behind these pronouns.
“I met a man who hit me a smack. I met a man who cracked my arm. I met a man who said what are you doing out so late at night. I met a man. I met a man … And I lay down. And slapped and cried and wined and dined.”
These jagged sentence structures, while also creating a very distinct voice, prompt the reader to complete the narrator’s sentences, making us engage with the writing itself. It is arguably less than even a stream-of-consciousness as the sentences are broken and ungrammatical. The short, snappy, one-word sentences make the reading intense and fast paced, as the novel hurtles through the character’s thoughts and conversations with other people while keeping a rhythmic repetitiveness to the writing. Some readers might find this makes the book difficult and off-putting. Others will find it effective to read a character’s inner chaos and turmoil on the page.
I remember that it was by the title of this book that I knew I needed to read it, more than the plot itself, which I didn’t even fully know until I ordered it. To me, it can be broken down into segments:
A Girl. is a. Half-Formed. Thing.
The title itself is thought-provoking and reflective of the themes of the novel. In an interview with For Books’ Sake, Mcbride says that:
‘One of the main themes of the book centres around the girl’s repeated attempts to become fully-formed, to become a woman and to take control of her situation but everything she has been taught about herself or about how to view herself, conspires against her… She is the product of a society which forbids women even basic humanity and objectifies them completely, either sexually or sentimentally. The title is merely a statement of fact.’
The words “A Girl” therefore become universally applicable to any girl. “Thing” applies to the objectification of women and the objectification the protagonist when her uncle sees her as something to use and toss aside rather than a whole human, a person. The half-formation is her clawing to be whole, yet arguably also nod towards her brother and his physically scarring brain tumor that doesn’t allow him to develop. Which in turn, along with her childhood, becomes a scar that doesn’t allow her to, either. Her mother would beat her and her brother both until they bled, their father walked out on them, her uncle repeatedly sexually used her from the age of 13. From a young age, the girl is riddled with guilt and a sense of wrong-doing in her every action due to her Catholic upbringing. Is Eimear McBride then stating that an inadequate childhood results in an inadequate, half-formed adult? It is an obvious idea, but to me it stands out, and points to the constant need to be whole that is often emphasised upon in fiction, society and everyday life, and the pressure put on young women. That idea that you are not something or anything if half-formed, but simply a thing that is incomplete. And the writing is purposefully reflective of that, as Eimear McBride takes ‘showing not telling’ to a whole new level.
The novel is separated into sections, each section with its own title, and chapters. The first is titled ‘LAMBS’ during which the narrator and her brother are young children. The second is titled ‘A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING’ and rightly describes her half-formed teenage years with the final ending as ‘THE STOLEN CHILD’. Through each segments, themes of religion, identity, growing up, death, sexuality and dysfunctional families are explored. The protagonist’s sense of panic is associated with grappling, marshy and earthy imagery and her love for the lake and water is highlighted throughout the novel. And while the protagonist is herself flawed; she makes wrong decisions, is self destructive, reckless, seeks pain and hurt out, there is not a point at which the reader doesn’t sympathise with her. That, to me, is successful writing.
Aside from the highly experimental style of writing, the themes of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing are arguably quite conventional, and not just in the Irish fiction genre. Schools, bullying, sibling relationships, death of a grandfather, rich and snobby aunts and uncles, judgmental and intrusive neighbours, priests, and church goers, rejection of religion, moving out for college, only to come back to the family home due to death or illness. Yet all this is underpinned by her brother’s tumor that hangs like the elephant in the room. It is with the intensity of language and storytelling that Eimear McBride’s novel shocks us. By presenting familiar young adult themes with a much darker slant and writing them in a new way.
The book is definitely not a read for everyone. It is definitely not one to pick up to feel happy and relaxed. But if you stick with, be patient with it, and take the time to understand what it is saying, you will appreciate it. Personally, I found it refreshing due to the immediacy and the daring style of writing. It’s well worth reading, especially as a text that explores how we write now. I like books to leave a mark and stay with me for a long, long time and this one surely will. Would definitely recommend checking out Eimear McBride’s previously linked interview on it too: