Whenever 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.