Written in six months, and shopped around with publishers for nine years, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is not your standard literary debut. It’s not your standard anything, actually, writes Jenni Kauppi.
As if to prepare us for what’s in store, the story begins with the narrator, a girl – in fact, a fetus in utero – describing her older brother’s treatment for a brain tumor as a toddler, and the father’s abandonment of the family. These few pages in Mcbride’s distinctive style provide early notice of the volatility of time and space from this narrator’s perspective.
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her a 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 you lay down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
It is this unique voice that guides us through the story, all the way into her twenties in Ireland at an unspecified time. She grows up, leaves her hometown for university and maintains a tumultuous and complex relationship with her quick-tempered Catholic mother, her beloved brother, and a disturbing connection with an uncle, the husband of her aunt.
The ‘you’ in the second person narration is her brother who, throughout the book, remains the centre of her emotional spectre. The carefully chaotic stream of consciousness has been likened to James Joyce for its expansiveness, and to Samuel Beckett for its resistance to the linear. Much like poetry, it’s a deeply moving and emotive mode of storytelling, drawing the reader in to its strange atmosphere; fluid and dreamlike, but often gruelling and nightmarish. The effect mirrors the rattling, ricocheting, tumbling motion of thoughts as they form and arise, especially in moments of turmoil; it is like having direct access to the very raw material of the girl’s thoughts.
It’s especially useful in illustrating drunken abandonment, oblivion seeking and self-destruction, and heralds an interesting way of engaging with sexual and psychological trauma. There are some things, McBride seems to be saying, that are simply unspeakable; they can only exist in a linguistically liminal space, rendered by, but outside of, direct language. How else to explain the inner life of a young woman who, waking with shock and disbelief to find herself with a stranger in an alley, is also able to reconcile it?:
The sharp light. Picking at my eyes. Needle shafts of. What have I begun or ended? What I’ve done. Sex as. Go to mass. Confession… Now I step. Pebble under toe. Think about. Kick. Not again. No. Stop. What’s see it spin. Look around … Laugh at it because the world goes on. And no one cares. And no one’s falling into hell. I can do. Puke the whole lot up. Wash my body on and off and I’ll be some new disgrace. Slap in this alley with no doubt rats as I’m leaving. Epiphany. I am leaving home. I’ve picked up and left. Fresh. I’m already gone… In the new world I am do this every single time I can.
On and on it goes like this, reeling with syntactical bedlam.
And while it’s not for everyone, it’s less daunting than it seems – Mcbride herself has said that if you can make it through the first three pages, you’ll likely continue. For orientation, she plants careful markers along the blurry path, so that the story’s arc remains visible, emerging and subsiding much like a Magic Eye image: when the thread of the story itself becomes obscured by the girl’s inner chaos, if you can surrender old reading habits and squint just so, a three dimensional image is suddenly revealed, clear and devastating.
So consider it recommended, if not for its readability, then for its staggering originality. It stands in a category all its own – and you won’t read anything like it for some time.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
By Jenni Kauppi