Even though I finished Eimear McBride’s debut novel over a week ago, I have waited to review it in order to let my thoughts settle. It’s rare that a book affects me as deeply as this did, and I’m not someone who bandies the word ‘genius’ about, but McBride is the one of the very few writers I’ve read in recent years that comes close.
A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is the first-person narrative of an unnamed girl growing up in rural Ireland, covering her life from age two to twenty. Her mother is overbearing, a pious hypocrite who prays incessantly yet is cruel to her children, and in the opening pages the girl’s older brother (addressed as “you” in the book) is recovering from surgery for a brain tumour. Her life at home already difficult, the girl becomes the victim of abuse and, consumed by pain and self-loathing, she begins to fall apart.
Some readers may initially be put off by the stream of consciousness style, but soon you find yourself getting lost in the book, pulled along and at times almost hypnotised by McBride’s unique way with language and the poetry to be found in her sentences. The uneven rhythms, lack of punctuation, repetition and fragmented thoughts may seem chaotic but it becomes apparent that the book is meticulously crafted. The reader must slow down and pay close attention to the writing, must work hard to engage with this book, but it is all the more rewarding for doing so. And there are some flashes of humour amidst the gloom: bemoaning the weather in her hometown she observes that “Even cows drown here.”
I agree with William Nicholson’s statement in a recent Guardian interview: “I think the kind of novelist who thinks that story is a dirty word had better be a genius.” While McBride’s style is the remarkable aspect of the book, she has not ignored the importance of story and it had an emotional impact that left me in tears at the end.
A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing won the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize 2013, which rewards “fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel.” Certainly McBride’s book does this; it’s an incredible achievement and I’m fascinated to see where her considerable talent takes her.