November 2013

Arts & Letters

Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’

By Alexandra Coghlan
Text; $22.99

“She the creature thing who. I put my hand down. I put my hand on. No it isn’t. Put my hand. Down. Put my hand. On you. Like a. Something. Cold and. Wrong.” Language is no smooth mirror to life in Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. Its surface is pitted and knotted, buckled under the strain of representation and often rearing violently against the restrictions of grammar and punctuation.

Short-listed for the UK’s inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, which honours literature that “breaks the mould”, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing isn’t self-consciously experimental so much as exploratory in style. The virtuoso violence of McBride’s expression – something of Mark O’Rowe’s play Terminus here, as well as James Joyce – feels instinctive rather than artful, the only way to tell a story that can hardly bear to be told.

An unnamed girl grows up in 1980s Ireland with a troubled mother, a molesting uncle, and an older brother suffering from the after-effects of an infant brain tumour. Complicated childhood metastasises into complicated youth as cancer returns, and our narrator translates pain into self-destructive promiscuity. “Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin.”

Every thought and action is curdled and blurred in the fug of Catholicism, with sexuality, truth and abuse swathed in a euphemising veil: “r.u.n.o.f.f with the s.a.c.r.i.s.t.a.n and they are living in s.i.n”. Though starched into Sunday best, McBride’s bodies are porous and oozing; a ceramic Madonna – shiny and whole – cannot survive her Rabelaisian world and must be smashed, skulls must be violated by the surgeon’s knife, hymens brutally torn.

Speech is Alan Bennett–vivid, but description even more so. Small-town Ireland is alive in the “polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue […] Tired. Undertouched”, a grandfather in the “right hook of a look in his eye all the time”. Set pieces allow McBride to be more expansive, and a first trip on the school bus, a wake and a rape are all rendered in heaped image-fragments. The staccato, mechanistic grind of language relaxes only for moments of liturgy – flowery prayers and praises, Hail Marys and rosaries.

It took nine years for McBride’s novel to find a publisher brave enough to take a stand with it. Whatever that says about the publishing world’s priorities, it says more about the author’s, which make no concession to the conventions of popular fiction. A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a familiar Irish tale told in transfigured Irish style, a lyrical prose-poem on horror and human endurance that is – astonishingly – neither horrific nor hard to read.


Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for the Guardian and Prospect.

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