A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

Review From User :

Let's get this out the way first: this is the most interesting, impressive and accomplished new novel I've read in a very long time. It is not for everyone, and it's often a difficult read, but it's one which I found affecting, disturbing and thought-provoking in equal measures.

The core of the book is a first person interior monologue written (or spoken) by an unnamed girl growing up in a small town in Ireland. We follow her in a broad narrative arc which runs from her birth through childhood then into adolescence and her years at university. She is always 'I' in this text; the 'you' here is addressed to her brother. He is born with a brain tumor which requires surgery to remove, an operation which leaves both physical scars and psychological echoes that haunt him through his youth.

It's the style which hits you first. It's the kind of thing which used to be called a 'stream of consciousness' even though that hardly works as an adequate descriptor here. There are no speech marks, and next to no commas. The sentences are ungrammatical, broken-up and restitched with the seams showing. They're peppered with Irish slang and colloquialisms. The flow approximates speech, but the content is frequently far more poetic than anything this character would actually say to anyone. A manifestation of the unconscious, perhaps.

'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'

There are echoes of James Kelman and David Peace, though it's not quite the same thing - I think the writing here is finer than the latter in particular, richer and less regimented - and above all there's the presence of James Joyce, in particular the final chapter of 'Ulysses' and pretty much the whole of 'Finnegans Wake'. McBride doesn't go quite so far with the punning, but there's something about the whole approach to language which is similar. (But don't let that put you off; it's far more accessible than that.)

I don't want to describe too much of what happens. You could summarise the plot of this book in a few lines; what drama there is occurs only in terms of incidents and accidents, accumulations of patterned behaviour which build up to something ultimately indescribable. Let's put it this way: the girl's mother is not a nice person. This may not be her fault. The father is absent throughout, mentioned sometimes in passing but never appearing in the text. The mother is a Catholic, but a bad Christian. She beats her children. She forms opinions of them which stifle them both, especially later in life, and ultimately they become closer to one another than they do to her.

And then there's her uncle. She and he develop a relationship in her adolescence which wasn't quite what I was expecting. It's the precipitating event which sparks off a stream of encounters with boys in her later years at school. It's hard to read about, this stuff, and I think intentionally so. She is not a victim, and at times there is even a disturbing edge of complicity to her actions in the strange, hostile world around her. In her own words, she is: 'Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin.'

It's a dark book, but it is not as dour as you might think; this isn't one to be filed amongst the misery memoirs associated with popular Irish fiction ever since 'Angela's Ashes' and the like. There are moments of intense and real beauty here, often moments in which our protagonist finds herself alone or with her brother:

'You are saying doesn't it look like a when we were little day High sky and snackish air. It does. We walk so slow for you. Hey look I say, what about that Will you look at that What Up there. See what I'm pointing at. A load of ducks I see them. No. Geese. Swans. Yes. Honking. I like that. V over me. V off to some reservoir I say. To the lake. Sure we'll see them when we get there. Fat bellies on them. Full of crusts and slugs do they eat them I don't know. I'd say I would. Pâté they are for birds.'

I suppose the only criticism I can offer of this book is that taken as a whole, it offers next to no actual lasting happiness in the life of the narrator. I know this seems somewhat contradictory given what I just wrote, but in some respects it seems like the book enters early on into a kind of downward spiral from which there can only be one respite.

In that regards it seems to me less a realistic account and more like something ambiguous, almost fantastic. And this in turn becomes what is perhaps the most admirable thing about the book for me: I never had the sense that the author believed they owed the reader a thing in terms of a totally consistent and balanced view of the world. The entire book is recounted as if part of one long, breathless artistic vision. Which is amazing, when you think about it.


Eimear McBride’s debut tells, with astonishing insight and in brutal detail, the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it is always a revelation.

Touching on everything from family violence to sexuality and the personal struggle to remain intact in times of intense trauma, McBride writes with singular intensity, acute sensitivity and mordant wit. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is moving, funny – and alarming. It is a book you will never forget.

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