TW: This book contains a lot of sensitive topics, including cancer, rape/sexual assault (underage and not underage) and various forms of abuse.
As you will have gathered from the above trigger warnings, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing deals with a lot of hard-hitting topics, so I appreciate that it is not for everyone. Absolutely no shame if you don’t want to read this review because of that. The topics listed above may be mentioned in this review, but I won’t go into detail. This debut by Eimear McBride is very impressive. I have read so much great Irish literature in the last year or so and if you haven’t been reading Irish authors, please please change that! Some of the greatest, most forward-thinking, boundary-pushing books I’ve read have been from Irish writers. (A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Solar Bones, Normal People, Joyce, Boland).
Wow, not even got into the review and I’ve already called it one of the ‘greatest, most forward-thinking, boundary-pushing books I’ve read’. Feel free to take that as a pull quote if any future publishers of this book are reading. You’re welcome.
The first thing that stood out to me was the narration style. It’s stream of consciousness, and doesn’t really make use of punctuation aside from full stops and commas. Sentences are often jilted, fragmented, repeated, or not even sentences at all. It takes a skilled writer to pull off this kind of style and not have it either impossible to parse or seem irritatingly childlike. McBride really manages to keep the right balance of readability throughout. Some sections took a couple of reads to understand what was going on, but the majority could almost be floated through. The style did remind me somewhat of The Waves by Virginia Woolf, though in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, McBride only explores one consciousness, our narrator and protagonist’s.
Something that I can get frustrated about in novels is authors choosing not to name their characters. In Milkman, for example, referring to ‘maybe-boyfriend’ or ‘second brother’ really seemed to disrupt the flow for me. For some reason, this wasn’t an issue at all for me in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Perhaps partly because the main cast is smaller — we have our protagonist, her mother, her brother, her aunt and uncle, and her friend. Having single words to refer to a character really helped to stop it from sticking out, and the small cast meant that, often, simply ‘he’ or ‘she’ was enough to discern the character from the context. As it’s a stream of consciousness text, sometimes it is unclear who the ‘he’ or ‘she’ is immediately, but this is less a flaw in the book and more a result of the style.
I felt as though the main character was incredibly well-established. Stream of consciousness texts really offer the opportunity to focus on showing what characters like and who they are. Through repeated thoughts on a topic, we establish the narrator’s opinions. The other characters seem 2 dimensional in comparison, but of course they have to be! The narrator only really thinks of these people in terms of their relation to her, like any first person narrative. The difference between stream of consciousness and a first person narrative, to me, is a sense of an awareness of being observed. In a first person narrative, you often feel as though a character is making a conscious decision to tell their story, and as such has reason to seem less self-centred, and develop other characters. In this book, however, it feels as though we have travelled, unbidden and unacknowledged, into the head of the narrator. She does not censor her thoughts for us. This book reads as people actually think. All this not to say that the other characters, and particularly her dynamic with them and relation to them are uninteresting. Quite the opposite. Even the most dysfunctional and abusive of relationships the narrator has are complex, and raise a lot of questions around what it means to love, and what it means to be a family.
Finally, the narrator’s reaction to childhood trauma was very interesting for me to read. I haven’t read much literature that deals with the impact of childhood trauma on adult life, so it was a new area to explore and consider for me. As it’s a stream of consciousness novel, the narrator’s choices are never praised, and never judged. She never really acknowledges the patterns that occur, but as a reader, you are able to put things together and infer in a way that she, too caught up in her own experiences, desires and emotions, cannot. Her family do have opportunities to express their views, but she pays them little attention, so the reader also holds their views in little regard. Her mother, particularly, is shown as blinded by religious beliefs, and has a very set worldview that makes her attitudes lack nuance and understanding of her daughter’s situation.
After reading this, I’m even more eager to read more by Eimear McBride. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was her debut, but she has since written more! I have the ebook of her most recent novel, Funny Hotel on my kindle, so I’m excited to dive into that!
This review also published on my GoodReads.