I don’t often wonder if I have got too comfortable in my literary tastes as I tend to think that I am quite eclectic in my choices of genres within fiction, though I am always aware I could really try and read more non-fiction. However when I picked up Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and began to read I discovered that whilst I might experiment in genre I am not really used to experimenting with prose, or indeed the many forms that a novel can take.
It is not often that as a reader we realistically open a book and are almost instantly thrown by the text. The thing is in reality, the truth of the matter and all that, experimental fiction/literature is much more than what many describe it now; a complex plot, a book of unlikeable narrators or the occasional book written in verse. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is, from the very start a truly experimental piece of literature and one that from the start may put many an avid reader off as it throws you out of sync with what you are used to, I would urge every reader to be a little more adventurous and read on…
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skim she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
If you are anything like me, the words ‘what the blooming heck is that all about?’ might just have escaped your lips. I couldn’t work out what on earth was being said yet as I read it over and over (I suggest trying about four or five times) there is something lyrical, poetic and fluid about it that I then did the same for the next paragraph, and the next, and the next and slowly the story formed for me of a girl living with her Catholic mother and sick brother, who has a tumour ‘all through his brain like the roots of trees’ and growing up in Ireland in an unnamed place and unspecific time.
McBride places us firmly in her equally unnamed narrators head, this is less someone telling us a story and more a case of just getting the stream of conscious as it forms in her head from the age of two and then leading into her formative years where she learns she can protect her brother from the cruelty of the world quite literally with herself, but in sheltering him from the pain she contains double herself and as we read on the way in which she deals with this is through sex, and preferably sex with violence hiding pain with more pain. She rebels, to put it mildly, yet in a country so religious she also has to deal with the shame, guilt and sin she feels (particularly when she takes her uncle, not by blood, as a lover) and so the cycle and confusion continues. It is confronting writing and a confronting set of subjects, yet has a raw beauty to it.
I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for long walks. Long ones in the country. I offer up. I offer up in the hedge. I met a man I met with her. She and me and his friend to bars at night and drink champagne and bought me chips at every teatime. I met a man with condoms in his pockets. Don’t use them. He loves children in his heart. No. I met a man who knew me once. Who saw me round when I was a child. Who said you’re a fine looking woman now. Who said come back marry me live on my farm. No. I met a man who was a priest I didn’t I did. Just as well as many another one would. I met a man. I met a man.
There is much that I found impressive about this novel. Whilst there is no time specifically set within the book the sense of place and the religious and family traditions of Ireland, and how oppressive that could be depending on your beliefs and family situation, comes through completely. Our narrator is wild and rebellious, initially I found myself thinking ‘good on you’ before soon thinking quite the opposite, she never becomes dislikeable even though she does some rather concerning and dark things. One of the main themes of the book for me was the nature of evil, what been evil really means and why people judge themselves evil. Much food for thought there, in fact throughout the book you are made to question yourself and how you judge or deem her actions, nature or nurture – or lack of the latter?
Having read it I can completely understand why it won the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize, which celebrates ‘fiction at its most novel’ and I think you would be hard pushed to find another novel this year, or indeed in the last several, that pushes the conventional sense of prose we are all used to. As I said it took me some time to get into it, a few paragraphs were re-read, some read aloud, but once I was in the rhythm of it I had to read it in one big gulp – the author has herself since told me that she recommends people read it fast. You are sure to find yourself speeding up to the climactic ending though as the character seems to unwind and unravel further and further, faster and faster.
I found A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing a book that confused, then compelled and finally confronted me. Not just because of the subject matter but also because it made me rethink the way I read. The abstract sentences and initially rather confusing style start to form a very clear, if quite dark, picture. You just need to reset your brain and allow it to do the work, or working in a different way. This is of course the point of prose after all, it shouldn’t always be spelt out just so and I hugely admire (and thank) Eimear McBride for writing such an original and startling book which will reward intrepid readers out there greatly.
For more on A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing you can hear myself and the author on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book.