Eimear McBride has that rare writer’s talent for breaking language and grammar down to use them for her own purposes. The story of an Irish girl coming of age in a strict Catholic setting is a familiar one, but the way the author tells it gives a fresh visceral understanding of the experience. The narrative is compact and clustered together with a bare minimum given to setting the scene so thoughts and dialogue are balled up as tightly as a clenched fist. However, the words sound out sharp and clear so that if you read it carefully you always know exactly where you are located, who is speaking and what is happening. The writing in “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” is unlike any that has come before. At times it feels like a Beckett play with disconsolate Irish voices ringing out in a tumultuous stream. It can also at points invoke the kind of subterranean speech used in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” where dialogue is neither what’s being said in reality nor is it what is consciously going through the characters’ minds, but it’s impressionistic and poetic thought welling up from the inside. However, the experience of reading this striking, accomplished first novel isn’t wholly like either of these examples. McBride establishes her own unique voice which adheres to a particular set of rules and logic set by the author.
It takes time to get into the rhythm of the story as sentences come across as so fractured and disjointed. “We are bad her. She and me. My friend I’d call.” Yet, once you get into the rhythm of the unnamed narrator’s voice it takes on a special complex meaning which would be impossible to get from a traditionally narrated novel. When I was reading this book home alone I found it helpful to read it out aloud. Maybe it’s a quality of Irish writing that when the words are spoken aloud the musicality and intent of it comes through in a way that is so much more meaningful and different from simply silently reading the text. Or perhaps there are such powerful character voices cutting through the text that they can be naturally transformed into a theatrical monologue. For instance try reading these few lines silently and then say them out loud: “And my head is good for secrets. I can bang it on the wall. It takes the nervous out and no one bothers for it at all.” Doesn’t the meaning subtly develop and change? If nothing else, it allows you to appreciate how unusually beautiful the writing is. Whether you choose to read part or all of this book aloud yourself is up to you, but I’d recommend trying it.
McBride’s narrator describes her intense close relationship with her sick brother, the traumatic experience of living through puberty and becoming sexually aware through her first adolescent experience with an uncle and later with boys at school. I was particularly struck by this unapologetically blunt passage where she asserts that her sexual promiscuity gives her control: “And in a car the best. Warm and parked away. They’ll do what they can to me in here. On my knees I learn plenty – there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do.” This at once asserts her right to express her sexual attraction to boys/men and cuts them down for not being particularly imaginative in their physical abilities. Later her opinion on this is modified as she matures and develops more complex sexual relationships.
Unsurprisingly, the narrator establishes herself as fiercely intelligent and unique from those around her in her provincial Irish town. The people here mark her out as different. For instance they mock her passion for reading: “God how can you read books at all? Look at that three hundred pages an awful lot to read.” She moves on to higher education and establishes her independence away from her family. “Look around. What if. I could. I could make. A whole other world a whole civilisation in this this city that is not home? The heresy of it. But I can. And I can choose this. Shafts of sun. Life that is this. And I can. Laugh at it because the world goes on. And no one cares. And no one’s falling into hell.” This beautifully sums up asserting ones own place in the world and breaking out of the rules (Catholic, social and otherwise) that one has been governed by in life thus far. She cuts herself off from her past and the people she’s known with a terrifying severity: “I will not think of your feelings anymore. For it’s a bit too much to know.” For a time it seems as if she will leave behind her town and family for good, but when there are developments in her family she must return. Here the mettle of her new identity is tested against the strictures of her upbringing. She must piece herself together anew and reconcile the multifaceted aspects of her life.
This novel is at times deadly serious as the narrator is defiant, but wracked with guilt and grief. “I am. Such a mess of blood and shame.” However, it is also fantastically funny and witty. Certain passages ring out as wickedly hilarious especially when she sticks two fingers up in the face of religion. “We heard of you and know you’ll want to hear the good good news. Oh whatsit? Jesus loves you. Right enough and so and is there some more better news than that?” Her blunt dismissal and anger about religion comes naturally out of being raised in such a restrictive environment that hasn’t allowed her to develop openly in the way she’d like. This raises a lot of humour and intensely personal emotion. As the novel progresses and the narrator reaches an emotionally intense point the text cripples under the weight of her life and becomes increasingly fragmented. The tension reached a point where I felt like I could barely breathe.
McBride has written a novel so fresh and individual it will be fascinating to see what she might produce next. I’m sure some people will find it tough to get into the highly stylized narrative, but once I got into the flow of it I was engulfed in and fell in love with the voice. It apparently took the author nine years to find a publisher for the book. I can only be thankful she persevered in getting it published and that Galley Beggar Press realized that this is a fantastically original voice which needs to be heard.
Listen to a brilliant interview with the author from You Wrote the Book: