My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 7#: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

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This book is radical and new in both its style and its content. It took Eimear McBride almost ten years to find a Publisher willing to take on the novel- and the world is glad someone eventually did! A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is an important book, with awards to justify (like Bailey’s women’s prize and Goldsmiths prize) what a great book it is- and why it stands out as an example of exceptional writing that redefines fiction, and the conventions of fiction writing.

The nameless protagonist is an Irish girl living with her neurotic Catholic mother and older brother who has a life threatening brain tumour in an unspecified place and time. It is told in chronological order- from a foetus to a young woman. There are few events within the novel and you get the sense that the plot isn’t really what McBride is interested in.  It is about the unstable mind of the protagonist reflected in the chaotic syntax and grammar (or lack of) of the prose. The novel is told in a stream of consciousness, taking in all experiences the protagonist has from smells, sights, inner thoughts, to interactions with others- all blurring together to give an insight into a very confused and upset individual.

The protagonist’s older brother’s illness is at the heart of the narrative, and indeed the narrative is addressed directly to him. He develops a brain tumour as a child, which is operated on and leaves him disabled. His illness pushes the family apart, leaving them detached and unable to communicate- as if the awareness of human fragility and mortality makes it too risky to love someone. The mother blames his illness on the children’s lack of Catholic faith and believes that if they pray and abstain from alcohol, and sex he will be saved.

Unfortunately the mother’s negativity and control alienates the protagonist, leading her to seek solace in sex and alcohol. The novel boldly tackles the issues surrounding female sexuality, without preaching or generalising about it. The protagonist’s experiences are uniquely her own, and McBride invites the reader to see her as an example of female experience rather than the standard.  Indeed the protagonist’s sexuality is paradoxically, both a coping mechanism for traumatic experience and a basis for further trauma- thus perpetuating her sense of failure and self-hatred. McBride offers a view on female sexuality that refreshingly acknowledges the protagonist’s desire but still shows how it is central to her feelings of distress concerning her brother. She uses sexual encounters as a way to regain control- every time she feels anxious and stressed she seeks it out as a distraction and an affirmation of her self-loathing.

Indeed the novel’s descriptions of sex are pretty horrible to read. It needs the reader to interpret the words….so sometimes I was not sure whether acts were consensual or not, particularly with her Uncle (though undoubtedly even if she is consensual sex with a thirteen year old is never okay). As the novel progresses her ‘need’ for violent and often un-consensual sex occurs more frequently showing her deterioration- as her brother’s body deteriorates so does her mental state.

The prose is directed at the protagonist’s brother. I was not sure whether to take this address at face-value or whether she uses her brother as her other; the antithesis of her. She constantly refers to him as youthful and innocent, a reminder of what she herself is lacking. Though whether this is the case or not, the novel shows how events in childhood can affect dramatically adult life, and how damaging things can be when not discussed openly.

A Girl is a Half-formed thing is a love story, showing how the protagonist feels about her brother but cannot express in words, and a lamentation to her lost childhood and innocence.

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