Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2014)


Then Not.

Girl Half Formed McBride

Simon & Schuster, 2014

Sharp sentences.

Jabbing thoughts.

Unkindnesses bearing down.

Book, set aside.


And here is where the experience of reading A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing may end for many readers.

Some, however, will lick their wounds and pick up the book again, return to Eimear McBride’s unconventional novel.

Like W.G. Sebald, the line between fact and fiction is blurred.

Like Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, the narrative is saturated with voice.

The other novels shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Fiction Prize are traditional novels: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is not what readers expect to find on a literary fiction prizelist. It is the sort of novel one expects to find in a catalogue for an indie press which dabbles in translations.

In many ways Eimear McBride’s novel almost needs a translator. At least, if one rarely ventures from the styles of works which more commonly appear on longlists and shortlists.

A lot of readers will undoubtedly be shocked by the painful story, which is almost tangibly painful for readers because the form so perfectly mirrors the narrator’s struggle.

Sometimes the pain is described overtly:

“And the blender go off inside me such my heart lungs my brains in. Rip my stomach out. They mean it and this time It’s true. I looked at you. And you seem to me your eyes are glitching off and on. Are absent.”

Sometimes the numbness is just as difficult to bear:

“Twist to look like I’m in here not just sitting by myself. Lay in the grass. Foots trodding dance around. See up skirts. In trousers. Music pumping ground under my head. I think some poems I’ll write. Bout. Sights. Remember. This wood smell of. Damp and. Dandelions stain on my bare leg. Sip up my. Sip and slurp it drink. Think of being by myself. Here. In this stranger’s downstairs flat. That. Whirl. Some fella coming up. Do you mind if I sit here and who are you then? Who are you? Do I know you no I do not. I turn my head is very slow and.”

The structure is amorphouse, readers suspended in the narrator’s consciousness.

“And we do get our flat and we live just the same. Some days weeks time go by.”

And, yet, some moments are stretched out, linger for readers to inhabit more fully. Though not in a welcoming way.

“Wander about the months sucking my teeth that you hurt. Touch and touching-up my eye. Packed in and up that life between my thighs. Keep it now for alone at night, for my thoughts to blister on. Can I meet you round the back at lunch? Just fuck off. You all can.”

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a novel whose style is remarkable and yet the fact that it is so remarkable is perhaps even more remarkable; Eimear McBride’s novel stands out starkly against the comfortable same-ness of style on literary prizelists. Not that it is her debut. Not that she worked on the book for so many years before securing a pubisher. Not that she is a young woman. Eimear McBride has published a novel which is different. And how strange that this is remarkable for a creative endeavour.

Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute (1945)

Tin Flute Gabrielle Roy

In the New Canadian Library edition, in Philip Stratford’s afterword, an excerpt from Gabrielle Roy’s autobiography is quoted to explain her connection to St. Henri.

“I returned deliberately to this district listening, observing, sensing that it would be the setting and to a degree perhaps the substance of a novel. Already it gripped me in some curious way that I still don’t understand. Its cries, smells, and reminders of travel weren’t its only fascination. Its poverty moved me. Its poetry touched my heart, strains of guitars and other wistful scraps of music escaping beneath closed doors, the sound of the wind straying through warehouse passageways. I felt less alone here than in the crowds and bright lights of the city.”

Her relationship with this neighbourhood is openly expressed in the novel as well: “For no part of Montreal has kept its well-defined limits or its special, narrow characteristic village life as St. Henri has done.” It  has charmed the author in a significant way.

But the neighbourhood is not equally appealing to all residents. Jean’s ambition leads him down another path, literally and metaphorically.

“Once a week, preferably on Saturday, he would walk up St. Catherine Street, go to the Palace or the Princess theatre, then have a classy meal in a west-end restaurant. Afterwards he would go back to the obscurity of his suburb, light-footed, whistling, happy, as if he had received confirmation of his secret ambitions. . […] Just as he needed to wear soft, expensive materials, he also needed to mingle with the crowd to taste to the full his self-confidence, his refusal to sacrifice what he felt to be rare in himself, setting him off from others.”

And Florentine, who is at the heart of the novel, keenly feels the desire for something “more” as well.

“But it was as if she had denied Rose-Anna’s work of all those evenings. This was an end to her belief that she had a pretty dress. Now she knew it was a poor girl’s dress. She would never ear it again without hearing the crisp sound of the scisors in the expensive cloth or seeing it, half sewn, with white basting thread, a dress of sacrifice, of work done by poor lamplight.”

Florentine’s relationship with her mother, Rose-Anna is vitally important to the novel. There is something of a love story, and this appears, at times to be the core of the novel, but that’s misleading.

“That was when she recognized love: this torture on seeing someone, the greater torture when he was out of sight, in short, a torture without end. Breathing harder, she murmured to herself, with the secret desire of inflicting on Jean this arid thirst rather than curing herself of it. I could make him love me too if I had half a chance. By that she clearly meant: I’d make him suffer as he’s making me suffer now.”

The romantic plot elements twist and turn, but beneath it all, like the hum of a sewing machine, is the relationship between mother and daughter, complex and ultimately dissatisfying, but enduring nonetheless.

IFOASmallBadgeEimear McBride will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authorson October 29, 2014.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Beginning Friday, daily thoughts on other IFOA2014 authors.