‘ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimar McBride


2013, 227 p.

I find myself quite at a loss to know how to talk about this book.  It was raw and intensely sad, and also one of the most frustrating reading experiences that I have had in my life. The book is written in short, disjointed sentence with words missing and phrases left unfinished.  It amazes me that, somehow, despite the difficulty in actually reading the words, the story is so powerfully conveyed in all its squirming discomfort and sorrow.

The story is told chronologically by a young, unnamed girl whose older brother suffered brain damage and behavioural difficulties after a childhood brain tumour. For a number of reasons, she embarks on her own spiral of degradation and self-defilement while her brother subsides into unemployment and depression before the brain tumour returns.  It is a book steeped in guilt- oldfashioned, Catholic, rural Irish guilt- which reminded me of the equally gruelling Lars von Trier film Breaking the Waves.   But at the points where the emotion is rawest and almost beyond words, the gasped, incoherent text is at its strongest in its inability to speak.

The language is a staccato  stream-of-consciousness, largely composed of snippets of conversation and fleeting images and thoughts.  It is a child’s voice, but it persists into adulthood, the tortured syntax a reflection of the tortured narrator:

Howl winter all through the night that year in the trees where we climbed on and the hedges on the road.  No cars here. No one comes.  Things crying in the fields for me. Say they want me and coming down the walls for. She’s coming Mammy. Who? The banshee. Don’t be silly. Sure isn’t your brother here? Won’t he mind you if anything comes along.  Should I close the door or leave it open? I don’t know. Shut bad out or shut it in. Worse you. And said They are coming. For you and me. Stop it. Coming for us and we’re without the knife. What knife? The one that goes with the magic machine. What is it? Makes the noise for killing bad things. A big dark tunnel bangs. How do you know? That’s what I had, me shouting it burns awful ahhh. The doctor said fire come out my eyes. He didn’t. He did and these aren’t mind. They are so. Mine melted. These are goats. Goat eyes and the devil wants them back. My throat’s closing. Shut up. Ugh shut up. Mammy? But wakes me in the night. Goat eyes riding off into the sky.

It’s a very demanding book but it gives much. It teaches you to read it. (I found when I copied out this quote from near the start of the book, that having finished, I could understand it instantly. I struggled to make sense of it on first reading.)  Like A Clockwork Orange and Ulysses , which likewise use their own idiosyncatic language, you need to almost stop reading with your eyes and just give over to your inner ear.  There’s absolutely no skim reading here: you have to stop fighting against the text and just go with it.  It is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.

In her review in the Guardian, fellow Irish writer Anne Enright ventured the suggestion that McBride might be a genius. I don’t know if McBride has other books to come – it took nine years to find a publisher for this one- but I will be bitterly disappointed if it’s a rehash or continuation of this one.  I reserve my judgment about whether McBride is a genius herself but  I think that this book is a work of genius. I hope it becomes and remains a completely unique classic.

AND, I’m counting this towards my Reading the World International Reading challenge as a book from Ireland. How appropriate on St Patrick’s Day!


4 responses to “‘ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimar McBride

  1. McBride could very well be a genius if she paid Anne Enright to drop the G-word in her review!

  2. Oh yes, I read and reviewed this book around 15 months ago. Such a powerful, powerful book. I hate bandying around terms like “genius” but this is a really impressive book in the way she gets into the psyche of the girl and enables us to understand her and who she is.

  3. Pingback: ‘Nice Work’ by David Lodge | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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