Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

Some writers weave language with grace and ease; they perfectly paint syllables and synonyms into masterpieces that leave you soothed and invigorated, regardless of the subject matter. These writers envelop the reader with flawless grammar and an aerobic vocabulary; they twist and turn but they play by the rules, and each sentence is a caress. Nabakov; Garcia Marquez; Roy; these are the masters of beautiful prose.

Other writers take language and abuse it. They rip words from their canvases and form abrasive mosaics that overlap, obscure and confuse. They alienate their audiences with illegible utterances and dense dialect; they forgo all guidelines and tear apart cliches, spitting each word into the face of the reader with utter contempt. Irvine; Burroughs; Joyce; these are the writers that dominate language and make it their own.

Eimeer McBride falls very definitely into the latter category.

The first page of the writer’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, is disjointed and difficult. A scene-setter, you think. The protagonist must be speaking through the muddled mind of childhood. This will only last a few scenes.

Jesus. Bile for. Tidals burn. Ssssh. All over. Mother. She cries. Oh no no no.

Yet, no; it continues, this fractured beat prose, maintaining itself through pages, chapters; the entire book. The sheer dedication to the writing style is stunning before you even consider the plot, which of course is fragmented, harsh and exhausting. And still this non-traditional manner of writing doesn’t at any point feel affected. Instead, it reads as if McBride has found her own voice and style and is at completely at home inside it. In fact, the chaos of the form is an effective window into the subconscious of her protagonist: When her mind is relatively at peace, the style wanders back towards traditional structure, although never quite reaches it; when she’s thrown into terror and bewilderment, the narration descends into near-nonsense.

The form mirrors the content, and though this book explores what might otherwise be considered a plethora of trite Irish literature tropes–a cold Catholic mother, a lapsed Catholic child, violence, sexual abuse, vulnerability, promiscuity–the bleak, unrelenting story of our protagonist as spoken in words meant for her mentally handicapped brother is absolutely arresting.

McBride’s nameless narrator and her brother, disabled by the removal of a brain tumour in his early youth, cling to each other as they struggle in the turbulent waves of their childhood, finding an island in each other. An absent father leaves a troubled mother. A pious and disappointed grandfather and an opportunistic uncle shape the narrator’s strained adolescence. Guilt, duty, pain and self-loathing result; through alcoholism and promiscuity she clings to her own agency, but self-destruction provides only a temporary distraction from the stark reality that eventually drags her back inside its shadowed world.

Yet this isn’t a book that falls into the old cliche of female sexuality as ultimate sin; this isn’t an innocent girl lapsing into the behaviours of a bad girl. The portrayal of the narrator’s journey through sexual experience with her uncle and through the many partners that she meets along the way is so nuanced as to be almost beyond judgement; the concepts of loneliness, lust, abuse and desperation are intertwined in a truly startling way.

The real horror of the narrator’s story is the senseless inevitability of it all. Though framed around her brother’s condition, it seems as though her fate was always going to be played out in this way, and she’s never offered a way out; indeed, she never even tries to escape from it. The heartbreaking culmination, though not surprising, ends the book in the only way it could: by dragging the reader to the depths of despair. And yet this isn’t the horrifying plot of a Cormac McCarthy book, in which characters find themselves in unimaginable situations making unbearable decisions. This doesn’t explore endless taboos and seek to shock like the works of J.T. Leroy. This tragedy is one that hits a little too close to home, one that could happen and does happen all too often in the homes of families that we know. The familiarity of our narrator’s fate is truly the most grave part of it all.

It’s an absolute travesty that this book took almost a decade to get published, and the very fact raises some uncomfortable questions: Is contemporary British literature so staid that a work of striking contrast isn’t worth taking a risk on? Are subversive female writers destined to be shunned while their male counterparts are embraced?

One thing is for sure: Eimear McBride has arrived.