Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book completely unlike anything I’ve read recently. The book was challenging, but worth the struggle I had with it while reading.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is about a young girl’s relationship with her brother who has a brain tumour, and the abuse she suffers through her life. Yet the book is also so much more than that. The blurb describes the book as, ‘not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense’. This is a perfect description of the book. The language is immersive, the prose a barrage of words which drag and pull you deep into the young girl’s mind. It’s impressionistic – short, sharp, fragments of sentences with minimal punctuation which leave readers to fill in the gaps from what is both said and not said. Some of the girl’s unconscious thoughts are incoherent, others lucid; some fully formed, others a trace before it is left incomplete. There are no names, instead people are referred to as ‘you’, ‘he’ or ‘she’. The girl of the title is never named either.
Throughout, I found myself painting a picture of what had happened, and to whom, getting to grips with the feel of the words and trying to make sense of them. The story is unrelenting, chaotic, panicked, and traumatic for the girl, and the prose creates this for the reader too – we are inside the girl’s head, not simply witnessing what happens, but almost experiencing everything as she does. When I first started reading, I wondered whether this experimental style would impede the story. But as I continued, I realised that it couldn’t have been told in any other way.
I found the style challenging and continually needed to strike a balance between concentrating on each word intently to find out what was happening, and just letting the words glide over me to leave me with a sense of what had gone on. In the end, I realised that I didn’t necessarily need to make sense of every single sentence; I think it’s the impression and feeling you get after reading them that matters.
Because I struggled with the style at first, it wasn’t until about a half to three quarters of the way through the book that I realised how much the story had a grip on me. I was genuinely affected by it, left feeling sad, horrified, uncomfortable, and drained after I’d finished reading.
While the writing style of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is challenging, the subject matter doesn’t make for comfortable reading either. It certainly wasn’t an easy read, but it was a rewarding one. I’m pleased that I read a book that was outside my comfort zone and one that I found challenging. Additionally, the fact that this book has been published at all, and has won a number of prizes, gives me hope. Hope that writers can continue to push the boundaries of the craft and what language can do, and that publishers will recognise that readers aren’t afraid to be adventurous in their reading and will choose books that challenge them.
Overall, I have a strange relationship with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. It wasn’t a book I enjoyed reading – it was sometimes an effort to pick the book up and continue it – but I love what this book stands for in terms of it being an original, experimental novel. It’s a book written with remarkable skill. It’s an important book, a powerful book, and a book that, I hope, will forge the way for other authors and publications to come.
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