Modernist Novel Wins Major Prize. Not a jaw-dropping headline, if the year is 1927. When Eimear McBride’s novel, which sat in a drawer for ten years before getting picked up by a micro-nano-indie press, won the 2013 Goldsmiths Prize and the 2014 Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, the headline seemed like a throwback. But its Modernist style combined with the unflinching depiction of a woman—a girl, really—owning her sexuality, her kinks, her pain, makes A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing remarkably new. McBride’s debut could feel, if you’ve glutted yourself on Irish literature, like Finnegan’s Wake plus Beckett snippets mixed with lyric Yeats, mashed together with the macabre Irish gothic of Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy and Edna O’Brien’s Down by the River. But if someone’s going to set out to write an Irish novel in the twenty-first century, could it be anything else?
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is narrated by an unnamed young woman who grew up, we glean from scattered hints, in rural Ireland, with a mentally damaged brother, a beleaguered, desperate mother, and no father. The narrator begins telling her story from the womb, and the pages that unfold are nominally her autobiography. Coming of age in Catholic Ireland, enduring the onset of sexuality, escaping to college and Dublin, McBride’s narrator is always ricocheting back to her family and her origins despite or because of the damage they’ve done. Beaten and berated by her mother and subject to an over-attentive uncle, the narrator finds solace in transgressions, fucking boys and scandalous men throughout her young life. She seeks control through passivity, connection through bruises, and punishment, always punishment.
This is the scaffolding, but McBride is telling the story of a mind that is in pieces, and what happens to those pieces when they lose coherence, or even the drive to attempt coherence, because of grief or guilt or some inborn disturbance. The book’s language mimics and creates the mental state of the unnamed narrator protagonist, faltering and breaking as she shies away from what she can’t even admit to thinking:
We are days. Watching telly drifting by. Coiled in front. Bored and always is. The evenings after school. But it comes over still. Whizz and whiz. What was that I did? I think of it in bed at night as. On my own I. Think will it always hurt? Will I always bleed?
The sounds and thoughts and the everyday boredom of children bleed, in the moment recorded here, into the thirteen-year-old narrator’s contemplation of her first sex act, her fascination overlaying the deep horror of that pivotal encounter.
McBride has said that she wants this book to be read fast, letting it wash over you, but the struggle to make sense and to fill in the unsaid is hard to resist. It seems important to figure out what to do with passages like, “For me he says and too much. I am. I. Stand up peel the skirt from off my legs.” Or with “I’m not. I am not. I. You’ve got beautiful.” The recurrent phrase in this book that swells with repetition is “I am. I.” Are these the aborted sentences of someone who can’t bear to speak? Or an assertion of self in a torrent of emotions and impressions that threaten to overwhelm it? I read in “I am. I” the narrator’s struggle to claim her being, her self, even as everything she does seems bent on rubbing that self into blankness.
And the reason this matters is that the entire novel is addressed to the narrator’s unnamed brother, who survived brain cancer as a child only to suffer from the damage that life-saving surgery inflicted, and to slowly succumb to the drabness of disability and dependence. He is the you to her I. He is one reason she leaves and why she always returns. The information we are given about the speaker’s own motivations and accomplishments is nothing more than a sketch, as if she barely exists as a presence away from her family and what she needs to rage against. At college, everything is a blur, but that blur stills to minute detail when she returns to her brother’s side.
The story, in the end, is not about the girl becoming a woman on her own, but about the family and her reaction to them. She exists because she’s named by her brother on the first page: “For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.” And as her brother declines, so does she. It is beautiful upon reading the novel’s last sentence to begin the book again – not reread it, just begin it. The blemished love of the brother and sister that gives this book such resonance is finally a relief in these bookending scenes, rather than the burden it is for most of their lives. And when you go back to the beginning, after reaching the end, the opening words that seemed scrambled and halting begin to explain instead the link between the siblings that drives the novel.
While passages of the book edge toward incoherence (and many more fall into it completely), as a whole it is a tautly woven, fully-formed thing. It’s a writerly book, no doubt. McBride has been forthright about her debt to Joyce and Beckett, and the stuttering, damaged, rich interior life of A Girl Is Half Formed Thing owes much to these masters of a human voice that is curdled before it even leaves the skull. This is the kind of first novel that gets described as a “tour de force” in the marketing materials and the back jacket blurbs. It’s stylistically ambitious, with skin-crawling subject matter, full of effort and striving. And it is a feat: Eimear McBride is unrelenting in her vision, and drags you into the muck and the current after her and her unnamed girl, not even asking you if you want to drown.