A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing

Girl is a Half Formed ThingWhenever I read a book written in an unconventional style, I ask myself what the style contributes to the story. Is it just there to make the book seem avant-garde or to dazzle readers into assuming a book is ingenious simply because it’s difficult? (Count me guilty of this assumption at times.) Or does it contribute in a real way to the book’s impact? Would the book be lesser if it were written in conventional prose?

I often can’t figure out the answers to these questions, but sometimes I do get it. The nadsat lingo used throughout The Clockwork Orange, for example, gives readers some distance from Alex’s acts of ultraviolence, making it easier to sympathize with him later in the book. When I first began reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, I wondered if the language was meant to serve a similar distancing effect, to give readers a little room to breathe as they experience some of the horrors inflicted on the novel’s young narrator.

McBride’s prose is fragmented, impressions made on the narrator’s young mind, thoughts that come and go before she can analyze them deeply. What analysis she does is quick, often ending mid-sentence as she moves on to the next thought. We get the feeling that we’re right in the narrator’s head, seeing, feeling, and thinking along with her. Instead of creating distance, the prose puts us right in the moment with the narrator.

The often unconventional spelling and punctuation give emphasis to moments of high emotion. Here, the narrator remembers learning of her absent father’s death when she was 13:

She says I’ve something to tell you after all. Your father’s hmmm. Your father’s, sit down. What? Shush. Dead. A while ago I got a letter from his mother, once it was over and done. She said he took a stroke. Quick. Probate won’t be long. But you never told us? Why didn’t you tell us? There wasn’t much I could say, not like he loved you, us I mean, and now he’s dead. You’re provided for. It’s time to go about our business. What’s that? Moving house. Why? Because he bought this and I don’t want it anymore. But I don’t want to move Mammy. Don’t start. But we’ve always lived here. We’re. Moving. House. Because. That. Is. What. I’d. Like. To. Do. And. If. You. Don’t. Too. Bad. Because. I’m. The. Mother. And. You. Will. Do. What. I. Say. As. Long. As. You. Live. Under. My. Roof. You. Will. Always. Do. What. I. Say. O. Kay.

Toward the end, when the spelling goes completely bonkers, it’s clear that the narrator’s situation has become desperate.

Another thing I like to think about when considering the books I read is the significance of the title. In the case of this book, we watch how the experiences narrator has as a girl, when she is only half-formed, affect her growth into womanhood.

Many of the experiences of her youth involve her older brother, who had a brain tumor when he was a baby and still suffers from the after-effects. In fact, much of the novel is addressed to him. But equally important is her relationship with her uncle, a man who grooms and rapes her at that half-formed age of 13, just when her sexual feelings are starting to awaken. This early experience leads to years of confusion and self-destructive non-relationships (and a continued relationship with her uncle) as she pursues that intensity of feeling again and again. The interplay between consent and non-consent is particularly interesting here. Most of the narrator’s sexual encounters are consensual, even sought after by her, but her telling of the story leaves us with the impression that she was seeking them not out of love or even desire for pleasure but because of that early experience that she desired in her body but was too young to properly consent to. She was half-formed and what her uncle did was a formative experience of the worst kind.

Here, too, the style of the prose is significant because in describing her moment-to-moment sensations, we’re able to experience the pain and release along with the narrator. We’re able to know that what looks like freedom (from parental expectations, religious teachings, moral shame) is really bondage to feelings she doesn’t understand.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a brilliant, startling, and upsetting read. It’s difficult, but the difficulty is less in understanding what’s happening (although that difficulty is there), but more in experiencing the narrator’s life along with her. Do also check out Stefanie’s review. Her praise of the book as she was reading made me move it to the top of my library pile.

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12 Responses to A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing

  1. Denise says:

    I like the style, it’s good you’ve posted a bit. I’d been put off by the idea, but actually, as you read it, it does make sense in an urgent way.

    • Teresa says:

      Some parts are harder to follow that the bit that I posted, but I’ve read books with more standard prose that are just as (or even more) difficult. The style really works well here.

  2. Jenny says:

    I often enjoy books in which the form is the function. That seems to have been some of what Modernism did, and when it’s done well it can be dazzlingly wonderful. This sounds very interesting, but (and?) painful to read.

    • Teresa says:

      I sometimes like this kind of thing and sometimes don’t. I often like it in small doses, but not for hundreds and hundreds of pages. This was a good length, at just over 200 pages. And yes, it is painful to read, but very moving.

  3. litlove says:

    I do like the bit you’ve posted – that’s useful to see. I’ve been on the fence for ages with this one, and Stefanie’s review half tempted me off it. I’d like to read it because I’m so curious about it – perhaps once Christmas is past (never a great time for me) I’ll pick it up.

    • Teresa says:

      I do hope you’ll try it–I’d like to hear what you think of it! And I think you’ll be able to tell within a few chapters if the style will work for you.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Wonderful review! I agree that far from creating distance between reader and narrator the style pulls you right in and doesn’t let you escape. Some of those scenes with her mother screaming at her left me hunched up and cringing as though I had been screamed at. I like your title analysis too! I hope the success of this book means McBride will write another novel.

    • Teresa says:

      She really puts you in the moment, doesn’t she? It made it so painful to read but also really enhanced my understanding and sympathy toward the narrator.

      Given how long it took to get this published, I wonder if she has another novel done or in the works.

  5. >>Toward the end, when the spelling goes completely bonkers, it’s clear that the narrator’s situation has become desperate.

    This, this, this is what I cannot handle. I love a book that tries interesting things with narrative, but I have a very limited tolerance for authors getting cute with spelling and punctuation. It makes me totally curmudgeonly. I nearly went off the Chaos Walking books around this very issue.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, this may not be the book for you, although the really distorted spelling is only a few moments toward the end—for moments that proper words cannot describe. I found it tremendously effective, but I wouldn’t have wanted the whole book to be like that. But there’s a lot of play with punctuation throughout the book, like in the passage I quoted. I kind of love that stuff when it’s done well.

  6. Jeanne says:

    Stefanie got me interested, but you’ve got me curious, with the excerpt and what you say about the ending. I sometimes love books in which there’s some attempt to make the sound echo the sense.

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