Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing has been widely hailed as extraordinary. It won the Goldsmith’s prize for fiction 2013 and saw the author hailed as “a genius” in The Guardian. McBride’s debut tells the story of a girl growing up in Northern Ireland, and her relationship with her brother. The novel traces the protagonist from before her birth to the age of twenty, and is a masterpiece of fractured first-person narration. The narrative complexity of the work develops in tandem with the narrator, and is instantly arresting from the first sentence: “For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.”
McBride’s narrative style is dislocating, “new” in some senses and in others, representative of the Beckettian avant-garde. Fractured, but never incomprehensible, this is forensic reading – the meaning is there, but must be reconfigured, reconstructed from the snippets of reported speech and observations recorded on the page. It is also fiercely experiential: we learn things, feel things, through the narrator’s eyes, and are never given the relief of a more distant perspective.
The plot is, in stark contrast, reasonably straightforward, a coherent coming-of-age narrative that displays the typical bleakness of many Northern Irish novels. The narrator’s mother, a violent, desperate hypocrite, invokes the Catholic faith as she beats her infant children till they are bloodied. The narrator’s brother, who sustained brain damage at an early age as the result of an operation to remove a tumour, is alternately treasured as the boy who nearly died, an object of all maternal affection, and reviled as ‘slow’, a burden and a curse. From within this violent, terrifying domestic maelstrom, the narrator emerges, turning to violent, masochistic sex and alcohol in order to block out her painful life, which also includes early sexual abuse.
Unsurprisingly, McBride’s novel is, at times, almost unbearable to read. Its unflinching depictions of rape, violence and abuse are given such vivid immediacy that reading them is an act of brute persistence, despite the writer’s skill. Sexual violence must, rightly, be addressed in literature, and McBride does so with the utmost skill; yet there is also a creeping feeling that the reader might be complicit in the violation: that reading the book is an act of unpleasant voyeurism. Throughout the novel, a major recurrent theme is scrutiny: all-seeing parental eyes; the account-ledger of mortal sins and the eyes of God; the male gaze, penetrating and unrelenting. That the narrator’s brother is ‘slow’, that he cannot see the world as others see it, makes his attention and affection safe. The reader does not have this privilege. We are constantly reminded that we are reading something written to someone who is not us; that we are reading without consent.
McBride is indisputably a marvelous new voice in fiction: it will be fascinating to see how she approaches her next novel. Her technical skill and ear for speech rhythms is remarkable, as can be seen in the opening lines of the book: ‘”For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.”
In the complexity of the prose however, McBride loses touch with the plot at points, and the final third of the book reaches a paralyzing crescendo and then, unfortunately, settles on a slightly weaken ending. Nevertheless, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a powerful and important novel overall.