A prize-winning debut that’s playful and engaging.
Let's get the hard part out of the way first – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is going to be your toughest read of the year. For here is that rarest of things, a novel that is about many things but assertively is most of all about language.
Eimear McBride’s use of language is what has entranced and no doubt put off many readers. Here are the opening words of the second section when the narrator is two:
“Two me. Four you five or so. I falling. Reel table leg to stool. Grub face into her cushions. Squeal. Baby full of snot and tears. You squeeze on my sides just a bit. I retch up awful tickle gigs. Beyond stopping jig and flop around.”
If your reaction to those opening lines is incomprehension then this book is probably not for you. And you will not be alone.
Before a tiny independent publisher in Norwich took it on, the book had been steadfastly rejected by mainstream publishers for almost nine years. Had it not been for that tiny publishing house, the winner of this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and Goldsmith’s Prize would literally never have seen the light of day.
Any writing of this kind is destined to be labelled experimental, but what that really means is that it defies all the conventions we have adopted to make reading easier.
So sentences are disrupted, there are full stops everywhere (even, if this makes sense, in mid-sentence) but no commas, there are isolated staccato groups of words and made-up words and non sequiturs galore. This apparently chaotic use of language of course makes it harder to read.
The result is powerful, impressionistic, fragmented and makes no concessions to the reader.“I was interested to see how far it was possible to push word order and structure while still remaining comprehensible and – more importantly – engaging,” McBride said in interview with The White Review.
McBride’s subject matter is essentially the girl at the centre of the novel through whose eyes we see everything that happens in the book and to her. And what we see is delivered as a stream of consciousness.
Her story follows her from childhood to young womanhood. It is not a pretty progress. Her mother is a devout Catholic but there is little love lost between them. Her older brother has a brain tumour. Her uncle abuses her. Her teenage sexual odyssey is largely a chaotic and sordid affair that brings her no joy.
Her crush on the uncle that abused her is complex and destined to go nowhere. There is no happy ending, no redemption, just a sense of someone half-formed becoming a little more formed in response to the largely hostile world around her.
Does anything enliven this bleak world? Well, the novel is artifice and the pulsating heart of this novel is its language. Playful, rich, exciting – rarely have I read a book where I felt that the medium actually is the message.
The book is full of moments when the precision and unexpectedness of the language simply stop your reading in its tracks.
It seems only right to conclude with a further quotation to try and convince any potential readers of the raw emotional power that this fractured technique can convey. The Girl’s brother is dying and she awaits his imminent end:
“But I know now this morning. I know it will be today. And I am white as any creature ripped down to the self. In my quiet in my bedroom in my on my own. Where there’s a mirror that is empty. Where there’s a worn out pair of pants. Where hairs are knot and fall behind the radiator. Where the smell of empty spreads out across the air. The thing the thing is. Kingdom come.”
In evoking desolate anticipation, I think that is quite brilliant.