Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing was a surprise critical smash in the heady days of 2013/14, at the time I was taking my MA. It was particularly present on campus as it won the university’s (Goldsmiths) literary prize that was fresh that year. The book was shortlisted for loads of other awards, too, and the rights to publication were bought by Faber from the tiny, independent publishing house that had initially produced it. There were adverts on buses, there were prominent window displays, it was a visible novel. Yet very few people I know have read it. As a somewhat “worthy, difficult” novel, it is the kind of book people buy, or gift, but don’t bother to open. I spoke to someone who’d found it too hard and given up, someone else who’d found it too dark and given up, someone else described it as self-indulgent… No one in real life, it seemed, had a good word to say about this lauded piece of fiction. However, keen to try these things for myself, I decided to read it anyway. Sexed up, Catholic, modernist? How does it NOT sound like my kind of novel???
Is it pretentious? A little bit. Is it difficult to read? Kind of. Is it full of horrific sex scenes that are barely enjoyed by either party? Yes yes yes. Is it full of Catholic doctrine and dogma? Yes. Is it dirty and filthy and dark and invasive and really fucking harrowing in loads of different ways? Yes.
A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is a physical text. It is all about the protagonist’s body and all of the terrible, filthy things she does with it. In an early scene, still a child, she has semi-consensual sex with her uncle (by marriage) and this pretty much fucks her up, building on the earlier experience of her elder brother’s unexpected recovery from a childhood brain tumour. Her childhood and adolescence are spent ignoring the bullying her brother receives and compensating for a lack of maternal affection and an absent father through her ever-expanding and self-destructive sexuality.
She is beaten and abused, fucked and bitten. She drinks and dabbles in drugs and is destroyed, physically, emotionally, again and again, but sees no way to steady her ever-present depression unless she fucks, fucks, fucks. She is masochistic, but in no way passive. She has dangerous sexual encounters with dangerous people, and her distance from her devoutly Catholic mother only expands when she returns to her parental home when her brother’s cancer returns.
The novel is written in a fragmented stream of consciousness. So, while most stream of consciousness texts are characterised by dense, long sentences full of many ideas, this one is instead full of fractured, half-formed clauses. The narrator is not thinking through her actions, she is not helping herself, she is not able to coherently assess the world around her. Her thoughts are damaged, like the text, childhood trauma and adolescent abuse arresting her growth. The sex and the intoxicants offer a distraction, but never a cure.
Though there are quite clear comparisons to make between this and The Bell Jar, the novel that this most reminded me of was (again) Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, my best read of the year so far. Both of these books had a non-traditional publication, both are written in a unique style that is initially difficult to read but is firmly justified by the content, and both have been widely acclaimed. They are both engaging books with a lot of violence, and both are distinctly contemporary in their intention to evoke a single character, a single mind, in intense detail. Both use a structure and prose style that is high concept and successful. If The Wake is an Anglo-Saxon Cormac McCarthy novel, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is a missing novel from an incredibly prurient Virginia Woolf.
I cried several times whilst reading A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing. I was shocked, disgusted, moved. It is a strong novel, in terms of literary merit and content. Not suitable for young eyes or the non-literarily minded. But, for me, I loved its bad sex Catholic violent modernism.
A great read. But harrowing.