A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride
Unique, fearless, compelling
‘No one had wanted to give the book a chance.’ Eimear McBride at Malahide Castle. Photograph: Dave Meehan
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Galley Beggars Press
Casually, coincidentally, last June became the month of acknowledging Irish writers of linguistic originality, starting with Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, winner of the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Set in an otherworldly Irish town in the near future, Barry’s invented words and scabrous slang dominate a book in which language overtakes character and story.
Ten days after Barry’s win, Mark O’Rowe’s 1999 play Howie the Rookie opened at Project Arts Centre in Dublin. O’Rowe has long perfected street chatter with a Ginsberg inflection for his characters, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s delivery of anguish, poetry and comedy were as perfectly united as the dots of an ellipsis.
Reading Eimear McBride’s singular debut novel, it’s difficult not to think of these predecessors. Language for all three is something to be pulverised and modified until it becomes a brilliant hybrid of the familiar and unrecognisable.
“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. Then lay you down. They cut around. Wait and hour and day.”
This is how the unnamed narrator of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing introduces her family, consisting of a mother and an elder brother, who has spent years being treated for a brain tumour. In those opening lines the narrator is two, but the story weaves through her life until the age of 20. The siblings’ childhood relationship is close but becomes a teenage power struggle of embarrassment at his “slowness” and the realisation that he will never have a life like hers.
The children’s mother is a pious Catholic whose own father visits early in the book to judge and disown the family (“a Clark Gable-alike, movie-star father with his fifteen young. His poor Carole Lombard fucked into the ground. Though we don’t say those words. To each other. Yet.”)
His visit echoes the religious dominance central to the work of John McGahern, James Joyce and Edna O’Brien, but in McBride’s hands we see it slipping away as the young turn their backs on it. The daughter abhors its rituals, breaking a Virgin Mary statue in frustration. She struggles to relate to her brother and conflates burgeoning independence as a signal to seek more physical ways to explore her identity. When an uncle shows up with a fat wallet and an inappropriate way of gazing at her, a pattern of sexual darkness evolves. The boundaries between control and abuse blur, and soon the girl is the subject of small-town gossip.
The story, however, is secondary to what McBride does with words. What initially stands out is the omission of conjunctions, but then McBride scoops up every word, throwing them confetti-like on to the page – but there is no randomness here, no lexical serendipity. There is order, precision and brevity in the extreme. She captures each leaping, real-time thought with staccato phrases, half-sentences and perfectly formed rhymes. The story of how the children’s father left is delivered with singsong breeziness that belies the devastation it caused.
“He left her with a fifty pound note. Take care! Stroke combing full, untidied hair. Thinking I think of you and me. Our empty spaces where fathers should be.”
McBride’s approach is certainly poetic, and playfully anti-grammatical, but with a deadly seriousness. For all the ugliness – humiliation, physical and sexual abuse, serious illness – she has not forgotten humour, and she has a brilliant ear for conversations. Local women visit the family home for a prayer meeting – “They polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue or black . . . their boots crusty with cow dung . . . their grown up bodies tired. Undertouched” – and have incantatory conversations about other women’s husbands, spelling out words they don’t want the children to hear.
Born in Liverpool to Irish parents, McBride lived in Ireland for 14 years before returning to the UK. Everything but her setting is imbued with a sense of Irish life and culture, and, working within this framework, McBride stands out among her contemporaries because of the extraordinary risks she takes with language.
For all the challenges A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing presents – and it is frequently challenging – it doesn’t keep the reader at a distance. We are expected to pay attention, certainly, to immerse ourselves in its shifting voices and stop-start rhythms, but it hugely rewards that dedication. This is a book that will be (unfairly) bracketed as “experimental”, a word that has lost all meaning when applied to fiction. What does it even mean? Does it refer to a work that is nonlinear, nonchronological (not the case here)? Or one that refuses to conform syntactically and that revels in the chances it takes with form?
Reading McBride is to summon up the ghost of Molly Bloom’s mantra-like soliloquy, as well as her longing and desires. There are distant echoes of the childhood voice of Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke, but comparisons don’t quite capture what this book has achieved. McBride’s themes and language prove her to be fearless, and her voice is utterly compelling and unique. Hers is a name we’ll be hearing a lot about in the future.