Winner of this year’s Bailey’s Women’s prize for fiction Eimear McBride’s famously experimental novel is a little outside of my comfort zone. Overall I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy it (although there were occasional moments when I thought I was beginning to) –therefore I could only rate it as three stars over on goodreads. That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the accomplishment, it is a hugely accomplished work, and I am not surprised it has received the praise that it has. I am also not at all surprised to see that it has rather divided the ordinary reader, many people saying it is an amazing, astonishing work with others saying they really couldn’t finish it. A Girl is a Half Formed Thing at its very basic level is something of a marmite book.
“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. They lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.”
There are moments (these moments I liked a lot) when Eimear McBride’s fractured unconventional sentences become wonderfully lyrical taking on a rhythm of the Irish voice it’s written in. It takes a little settling into – but it becomes possible quite quickly to understand the narrative, and to enter into the mind of the unnamed narrator. To be honest, the structure of the novel, although not a style I particularly like, was not my biggest issue with the novel. Eimear McBride is an exceptional writer, to my mind she is something of a poet.
Written in a stream of conscious which throws many of the conventional rules of English grammar right out the window, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ spanning a period of about twenty years, tells the story of young girl and her family in Ireland. Living in a community dominated by the Catholic Church, our narrator is the younger of two children, being brought up by their mother, the father having apparently left some time earlier. The girl’s elder brother suffers a devastating brain cancer when he is a small child, a tumour he was not expected to survive, and continued to affect him throughout his life, in turn affecting his sister and her relationship with him and their mother. A family often in crisis, the children’s mother sometimes struggles to cope there are occasional beatings, maternal expectations that are hard to meet.
“We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped. I didn’t want it from that time on. You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no. That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted. To be left alone. To look at it. To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done. Know it and wonder what does it mean. I learned to turn it off, the world that was not my own. Stop up my ears and everything. Who are you? You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”
One member of the family who has a profound and lasting effect upon the girl is an uncle who lives in England with his wife and daughters; he first visits the family when the girl is thirteen. The horribly abusive relationship that develops between the girl and her uncle is uncompromisingly told, over and over again, it makes for disturbing and deeply uncomfortable reading, and I am sure that is the point. Numbed and damaged by the abuse, the girl begins to deliberately seek out more damaging, dangerous and abusive situations throughout her teenage years and on into early adulthood. This was the element I really didn’t like. I don’t suppose anyone could possibly like this story really, however, the deeply disturbing and unflinching descriptions of rape were such I just wanted to look away, it was all just really too horrible. The reader can’t help but feel slightly assaulted too. I’ll say no more about the reaminder of story, as I don’t want to spoil it for future readers, but suffice to say it doesn’t get any easier, and the final images McBride leaves her readers with are quite heartbreaking.
I may not have entirely like this novel, but I believe Eimear McBride is a very talented writer. The way she has played with language is extraordinary, these deconstructed sentences, tiny fragments that are pieced together, do create a recognisable world, filled with real people. There isn’t however, the depth of character that I particularly like as a reader, and the limited nature of her description, means the images that one is left with are stark and rather brutal, I am sure this is not accidental. I will be interested to read more work by Eimear McBride in the future, but I may still approach it with some caution.