A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is stylistically unlike anything I have read. An uncompromising coming of age tale, it is told in truncated sentences that cut like a sharpened blade (and proved quite the jolt after reading the luscious prose of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby!).
It is the story of an unnamed Irish girl growing up in a dysfunctional family, with a troubled mother (‘Mammy’) who maintains an obsessive devotion to the rituals and rites of Catholicism; a brother who had brain cancer when our narrator was very young and is compromised both mentally and physically because of the surgery required to remove the tumour; and a malevolent and predatory uncle, to whom she loses her virginity at the tender age of thirteen. The father left when she was two, perhaps earlier.
The relationship with her brother is the only pure love she has in her life, but as in all sibling relationships, troubles loom as she grows up and feels herself leaving him behind.
It is a challenging read, certainly at first. Here is the open:
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin 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.
Even in these opening lines, it is clear something is wrong in her life. This is the voice of the girl as a two-year old, but even as she grows and becomes an adult, the prose remains in this unsettled state. Don’t be put off. I soon got used to it. There is a remarkable musicality in sections, particularly with the dialogue, which sits subsumed within paragraphs a little like the dialogue of a Jose Saramago work, only cut-up.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some wonderful moments of levity. Like any two year old with an independent streak (she is ‘boldness incarnate’), our narrator gleefully escapes the bath her mother has run:
I’ll jump the bath when she has me. Running with my headful of shampoo shouting no Mammy no no no. Cold chest where water hits windscreen belly in the rain. Down those stairs as fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead. In my eyes. Nettling them. Mammy. Yelling Lady you come back or you’ll get what for.
And when crotchety Grandpa visits, he chastises the girl’s mother for letting her do forward rolls in a skirt. ‘It’s disgusting. It’s perverted. Underwear on display. What kind of carry-on is that? How is she supposed to be a child of Mary?’
Her estranged father dies of a stroke when she is thirteen, and Mammy and the two children move to a new home, a new school. Life is difficult. She doesn’t fit in at all. The boys bully her brother, and she often fails to intervene, giving rise to guilt – that most Catholic of weights, which is ever-present.
Water is a recurring motif, from the bath escape as a toddler right to the end, underlining the need (hope?) for a baptismal cleansing of the soul to which our narrator clings. It is even there, albeit obliquely, when her visiting uncle takes advantage of the impure thoughts she has about him: ‘He kisses me. The deep again.’ She goes on to think he tasted like ‘something deep’ too. The morning after the kiss she goes off and ‘falls’ deliberately into the nearby lake. On her return she meets her uncle in the kitchen, still soaking wet, while the others are asleep, and what follows is breathtaking, as the uncle has intercourse with her. As they begin:
That’s a thrill of me. That I am. Feeling running rivers over me. Running falls. I’m splashing falling into it. His cheek on my head. His dark hair. That I am warm in this. Full up. True. Here we are. Here we are. We eventually are here. Go let myself down in this.
It was only on reflection that I wondered whether the ‘we’ referred to here is her and her brother rather than her and her uncle; that is, the hopeless happiness she feels here is something that reminds her of the times she and her brother used to swim as kids, when ‘my feet are silver kicking through the frozen clouds beneath us’, times where she was whole, happy, pure. It’s difficult to tell. But she definitely returns to water throughout, and the release it offers from something too painful for her to carry.
The kitchen scene is not the most shocking in the book. Discovering a dark power in her detached sexuality, she gives herself to pretty much every boy and man she comes across, both in school and then in college, developing a taste for masochism as she loses her grip on what it means to be whole. She is the ‘half-formed thing’ of the title. At one point she contemplates telling us her name, but keeps it to herself; she has so little faith in people she cannot even trust us with that.
Later scenes with her uncle left me gobsmacked. Not even Jesus can save her: ‘If Jesus was here he’d have gone. Running. Screaming with his sandals all flapping in through the cow shit.’ What is gripping about these passages is the stifling compression the fragmented prose creates. Some passages left me feeling almost winded. And the moment her brother apologises to her and Mammy for something he feels guilty about is absolutely heartbreaking.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is writing at its most powerful. The story elements are not particularly new, but the package matches Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (my review) for intensity. It’s a one-off, and should be celebrated.
McBride is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) (www.swf.org.au for details). I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about her journey to publishing this firecracker of a novel.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)