Book review: A Girl is a Half Formed Thing
Toby Lichtig reviews Eimear McBride's debut novel
A Girl is a Half Formed Thing By Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
Eimear McBride’s debut novel is a breathtaking, bruising, emotionally tortuous tale of a young woman growing up in – and out of – a religiously stifling household in small-town Ireland. It is also formally ingenious. The author’s use of language is so unique, so instantly inimitable that McBridean deserves to be an adjective.
Of course, the writing has its forebears. Virginia Woolf springs to mind in its interiority, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett in its expression of fragmented consciousness, Edna O’Brien in its concern with female entrapment in a male-dominated world. But McBride’s style feels neither derivative nor deferential; there is no sense of tricksiness. Her visceral first-person register – urgent, compelling, built out of recurring tics and phrases, words that bounce off each other capturing the free play of the mind – is there to serve the story. This isn’t invention for the sake of play: it’s invention by necessity.
The following scene comes at the start of the novel. The young girl’s brother (referred to as “you” throughout) is recovering from the removal of a life-threatening brain tumour. The prognosis is unclear. The girl’s father is about to walk out on her mother (referred to as “she”):
“Your pink face make that sitting up the best thing she’d ever done. Watching you going growing hair. Scabby over slices where scalpels were. Don’t look. Telling what’s the time and where you are. Makes her happy. Makes our father. Walk down corridors alone.
He says I can’t be waiting for it all the time. I’d give my eyes to fix him but. The heart cannot be wrung and wrung. And she like calmest Virgin Mary sitting on the bed. Hands warming up her sides for. What’re you saying. Breath. Going? Leaving? But he’s just stopped dying.”
Isolated in this way, the prose might seem forbidding; but the reader quickly settles into it. At its most effective, it can feel like having someone else’s consciousness channelled directly into your brain.
The story itself is both simple and traumatic. The narrative follows the girl from infancy to early adulthood in the oppressive family home. The father doesn’t return, and the mother devotes herself to Catholicism and domesticity (“I’m not for loving. Anymore. I’ll live for housework. Dressing kids”). The brother’s illness hangs over them with the capricious menace of an Old Testament God. The mother nurses her grudges, flings around her prayers and sometimes lashes out.
Aged thirteen, the girl is introduced to sex by an uncle in a scene of ambiguous abuse; her teenage years unfold in a blaze of promiscuity, sometimes violent, as she works her way through school (“They’ll say my name forever shame but do exactly what I say”). The arguments increase at home, and a love-hate relationship develops between the girl and her vulnerable brother. She later gets a place at university, moves to the city and rejects religion, making a mockery of Irish Catholicism’s arcane rituals. In one brilliant set piece, the girl attends the wake of her cruel and estranged grandfather, finding herself alone with the corpse:
“So Granda. I don’t talk to the dead. So now. That’s strange to see him here. Dead. I could give him a kick if I liked. But it’s not worth the hassle now. I could undo his flies for shame. I know he wouldn’t have wanted me to. Or kiss. Poke him. Squeeze out an eye. I’d lift it but. Maybe. No. Better not touch . . . . I know they’ve washed him. Stuffed his throat. And packed his arse with cotton wool . . . . The eldest daughter. Did that . . . . In this house we do our own post-life stuffing. I splinter at the sides. To think of it. That fairly strange. To do that to your father.”
At another funeral, the girl is aghast when her mother’s friends from church arrive to offer their support:
“… doorbell rings. She bustles to it. Come the holy holy holy things. What? Mammy. Not. Come in come in. No no not today not not them . . . . All these strangers it’s not for gawking . . . .”
The novel can be very funny but its real power lies in its extraordinary compassion: its rendering of the confusion, manic energy and penchant for self-destruction bubbling inside its troubled protagonist as she struggles, in a harsh and sometimes beautiful world, to form herself.
If all this sounds like gushing praise then blame the author: writing like this doesn’t come about too often, and when it does it should be lauded.