Book Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing 
Eimear McBride 

Galley Beggar 2013


Some book are a hard read because they’re badly written. Some are difficult because they’re deliberately challenging — Finnegans Wake or Riddley Walker, for instance. Some are difficult because of the subject matter — a number of books come to mind here: Under The Volcano, The Road, Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice. But I’ve never read a book quite like this before — the relentless bleakness, the relentless pain. And the sometimes intense beauty of the writing. 

I discovered this book in an article in The Guardian by Anne Enright (who knows a thing or two about dark prose) where she refers to Eimear McBride as a “genius”. And she may be right about that.

McBride writes in a kind of stream of consciousness, with broken and incomplete sentences, overheard fragments of outside conversation and memories popping in and out, bidden and unbidden. It can be hard to follow at times and the style never really settles into anything close to normal prose. But the style is not ‘experimental’. The experiment is over and she has the thing nailed. The language is used with a precision that tells truth, opens dark places and is fierce in its desperation to put words on perceptions.


The story is of a girl (never named) and her older brother who suffered a brain tumor as a child. There is a bond between the two that serves as a symbol for all that is safe and clean in her world — but the world she lives in is not safe and not clean. When only thirteen she’s raped by her uncle, though, in her telling of it, the encounter is vague and unclear — very likely as it was in her mind at the time. In fact her account of nearly everything is vague and distant, as if some part of her is detached from events. Confused and adrift in a swirling world, she uses sex as a weapon, thinking it her strength. But a drunken promiscuity brings a ravaging of her soul and sex becomes her weakness. She craves humiliation and abuse while all the time trying to heal a great wound inside. It’s a difficult book to explain mostly, I think, because the book is a protracted attempt at an explanation and has an empty distance at its core. The psychology is of damage and incoherence and the book is a vivid exploration of a broken life. 

But the language is exquisite. It reads like a stinging poem:

“At night I dream. Always. God is. Give me unquiet dreams. When the world. That. I dream. I see the plains of the sea, turning over. Tar. Black as. Through the. My nose press. Open. Close. Like a seal on the ice. Against the smell of rot. Come from black come from. Where the. Where the world is. Turn like. On the face of it. Diving. Feel I that. Where we ought to. I am of the. Off the. Who are you wake. Up. And the window is filled with light.” 

This is a hugely brave book, both in subject matter and in style but it’s not for everyone. I loved it but even those who will love this book will find themselves reeling at times. 


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