‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride – The Monthly Book

March 2014

Welcome to the Monthly Book.

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.


A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride


Welcome to a new year of reading!

Rarely do you find a new book that breaks new ground, but Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (Text) does just that. This Irish first- time novelist has read her James Joyce, but applies her lessons to a subject matter that Joyce could never tackle: the inner turmoil of a girl whose deep connection to her unwell brother both saves and torments her in a life of self-destruction. I know it doesn’t sound cheery, but I’m enthusiastically recommending it for our reading this month for sheer original bravura.

As critic John Self said, “This isn’t – let’s not muck about – a gentle book. It is a wrenching book, full of the worst, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s an aesthetic wonder all the same. It’s terrible beautiful.” And I concur with his analysis.

The book begins just before the birth of the young girl. We understand from half sentences and rhythms in the writing that she has a slightly older brother who has sustained some brain damage after surviving a tumour. They live with their mother, who is steeped in guilt and religion in rural Ireland; their father has left, and he later dies. The girl spends her days with her adored brother, protecting him from bullying at school. As she gets older she struggles with her home, her mother, her mother’s religious mania and – after abuse by her uncle – the power of her own sexuality, which turns in on her towards the end. She leaves the town and its strictures when she goes to university, and she comes back to help nurse her brother through his final illness.

McBride started writing the book with a quote from Joyce in her head: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” Her instinctive attempts to find different ways to use language to explore this part of our lives are very impressive. If you think the book sounds hard to read, trust me that McBride has tried to make it worth your while.

As she says, “I really wanted to give the reader something in return for making the effort. Because I understand that when you open a page and there are lots of sentences with two words and some of them end with the word “the”, that that is slightly alarming and possibly off-putting. But I think if you give it a go, you do get something that helps to pull you through, and the rhythm is certainly part of that, so at least you know that there is a thread that you can connect to.”

It may have taken McBride nine years to find a publisher for the book, but it has already won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize for boldly original fiction. It has also been shortlisted for the Folio Prize, a major new award for English-language fiction from across the globe.

I’m interested in what you think of this month’s Monthly Book: Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. Watch my interview with her, read the transcript, read the book, and let me know.

Watch the interview

Read the transcript

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