Category Archives: International Reading Challenge

‘ 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!


‘Beauty is a Wound’ by Eka Kurniawan


2002, (released in translation 2015),498 P.  Translator: Annie Tucker

Publisher’s site:

Well, the opening sentence gives you a pretty good sense of how this book is going to go:

One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rolse from her grave after being dead for twenty one years.

I have not been the only reader to recognize the resonances with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude,  and just as when I read that book for the first of what turned out to be many, many times, I just didn’t want to leave this magical world.  I didn’t understand what was going on, but I just loved it.

Dewi Aya was descended from Dutch Indonesian stock. That side of her heritage was not particularly important to her, and when the colonists left after WWII, she stayed on working as a prostitute, by choice this time, after being forced into prostitution by the occupying Japanese soldiers. She gave birth to four daughters, all with different and unknown fathers: Alamanda, Adinda, Maya Dewi and Beauty.  The first three daughters were beautiful, but their beauty entangled them into strained and strange relationships with powerful men.  When Dewi Aya fell pregnant for the final time, she wished for an ugly child, and her wish was fulfilled.  This, then, is the story of these four daughters and the men who love them, within the small fictional village of Halimunda. At the same time, it is a bawdy and funny satirical critique of colonialism and repression.

There is a fairy tale quality to this book, where women marry dogs, men can meditate themselves into atoms, and the dead live on as both ghosts and physical presences.  One story unfolds into another, and there is an Arabian Nights quality that runs throughout.  In interviews the author, Eka Kurniawan has noted the influence of Indonesian puppet-play and folk tales, and it’s detectable in its ‘once upon a time’ quality,  and the picaresque good-and-evil dilemmas and retributions that play through the lives of the main characters.

At the same time, there’s a very clear historical narrative that underpins the story as the Dutch, Japanese, Communists and anti-Communists pass through. The massacre of the communists drenches the middle part of the book, and there is mention of the Indonesian military involvement in East Timor.  There are few dates, and I’m certain that the historical commentary and allusions to actual characters would be far more meaningful to someone with a good understanding of Indonesian history (and to my shame, that’s not me).  In fact, that was one of the strongest feelings that I came away with: my embarrassment that I had never read an Indonesian book before, or known of an Indonesian author in this huge, populous country to our north. Apparently the translator received a PEN grant for the translation, and it highlighted for me that translation is so important in stretching our literary imaginations.  It’s a good translation too, with a light lyricism and humour that seemed part of the work itself.

I had to quell my uneasiness that I was missing the metaphors and allusions that would be woven into this book for its Indonesian audience. Even in my ignorance, I was drawn into the stories of each of the daughters, delighted in the unpredictability of a magical world, and felt satisfied by the the ending which came full circle and drew it all together.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library