Saturday, 4 January 2014

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing - Eimear McBride
[The Vapour Trails Book of the Year 2013]

"I know. The thing wrong. It's a. It is called. Nosebleeds, head aches. Where you can't hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young she says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can't or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush."

The quote above is a full paragraph from the first page of one of my books of the year. Like a mash up of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy and The Country Girls written by Kathy Acker this is an intense, dark and stylistically exhilarating book.

The language stumbles towards expression, creating a sense of great intimacy. It is as if the trauma of watching her brother fight for his life has left her with a poor hold on words themselves and that they too, like the "mugs and dinner plates", fall and break. The book outlines her quest to find a world of certainty and love, a world which she lost to her brother's illness, family break-up and a crooked catholicism. But her search leads her to even greater hurt, as the exposed pain is beyond her control and her attempts to kill the pain only hurt her further.

The opening section deals with the narrators brother's treatment for a brain tumour and the fall out from this is central to the novel. Their father leaves and their mother takes refuge in religion and self-pity. "Weeks for you. Weeks it. Scared and bald and wet the bed."

There is a sense that the mother is also suffering from her own childhood and the visit of her father is described in ominously violent language: "That man was sterner stuff than us. A right hook of a look in his eye all the time." He is a man who expects that his word will be taken as law - "Stay for a week us beck and called." He is a man of unforgiving religious beliefs and is not afraid to point a finger of blame at the child's father for the tumour: "Your father was a proud man. He wouldn't come to mass and look what happened to you as a result. So you beware of pride."

He points his devout digit at his daughter as well, smearing guilt over every surface he can find - "There must be something wrong with you. You're not right in the head. Just as well I left your poor mother behind. Well it's little wonder why your husband left." As a parting shot he lets them know that he can "feel the evil in this house." The narrator's mother is largely abject around him, relying on money from him and as well as fear she has that human desire for praise and acknowledgement.

Inside the narrator religion and misogyny walk hand in hand, with the pressure on women to be little more than conveyor belts for children, forbidden contraception and expected to mother large 'Catholic' families. Sex fits unhappily into this pious worldview and the narrator revels somewhat in the irony that the anarchic power of lust lies side by side with such piety.  "Such worshipping worshipping behind the bedroom door. With their babies and babies lining up like stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to give that up."

Her taste in religion shows the earliest signs of a desire for abasement although it will not be in religion that she will seek it. "And bible stories every day and night. All the eating locusts I liked. Hair shirt sticking in the skin. Devils in the wilderness and stones for bread. A good suffering Jesus. Lank and ribs, tats hanging in his hair."

There's a lot of humour in this book, and a precision to many of the unflattering portraits. When the local women get together in her mothers house the narrator captures the smells, textures, asides and appearances in her tumbling shorthand: "Lily of the valley and vaseline. The country's awful in the winter. Brown skin nylons. Leatherette shoes. And they'll just have a little cup there in their hand. Good for them they like God and Jesus the most." However their holiness is often overcome by their love of gossip as they unsuccessfully try to hide the subject from the young narrator: "look at little lugs there listening in. Oh taking it all in that one. Doesn't miss a thing. Spelling I know but too quick to understand 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 down in such and such a place."

There is so much else to savour in this book and I am tempted to keep firing quotes at you.

Starting school - "Pushed out to the ocean of school. Wave back occasional to her shore." "And I never learned times tables. Scaldered to the spot. What's seven times twelve? Never learned that. Thicko to the front. Face the class. Now for you. Have a smack. Was all that happened for years." The strain of moving school and the difficulty of having a brother who is not quite right, both the rage to protect and the strong pull of betrayal in order to belong, however peripherally. The stirrings of puberty  - "We sliced through that fug school bus. So misfortunately new. Thicken soup-ish teenage sweat and cigarette boys slop always at the back. Held tight my rucksack filled with rattling tins of pens. Fat drizzle blotch through the polyester skirt I sideways slope to walk in. Felt my hormones long to slink out of these hard eyes." The pressure to match the expectations of "the great girl face", all the things she cannot be without facing opprobrium. Her wish to be like the boys who can have their shirts out and their nails dirty without being judged.

A visit from an aunt and uncle who are better off with "Holidays in Spain"; "en suites for this one and en suites for that one"; "Grinds and trips to the orthodontist", bringing "second-arsed" knickers from their their two girls who have "Not a ladder in their tights or a pain in their heart.' And although she berates them in her head "Chintz for brains I hiss and think." "I'm having bile thoughts. Great green ones of spite and their slopped daughters with tongues too long to keep in their mouths." But her uncle meets her gaze and she feels that she can take something from them and prove herself no less than them and have something for herself.

Description of man in throes of sexual climax: "He is goding goding goding. In his breath. Like a great surprise has taken place."

Then there is the voice of an avenging angel, cutting through the layers of scorn that she is treated with, hitting back with her own scorn edged scissors filed to a point with years of suppressed rage: "The lads in your year are fucking scum and bastards and thick pig-ignorant culchies. What? They stink of hair gel on too thick and biactol that doesn't even work. Your friends. The nice boys of your year. Pimply faces white as never seen light and crusty lips and dirty hands. Think they're all so cool and can piss on me and my brother but really they're just desperate for someone anyone to give them a wank. Just leave me alone. But he didn't answer. That voice already burning in what they don't know for all their talk. What am I? God. Is that right. How would that be? But there's some bit feels savage. That doesn't know the wrong from right and sees the way to venge. I might. I am. I will."

This is an extraordinary book, the best I have read about growing up as part of my generation in Ireland. It spends most of its time in the darker corners of human experience but the picture is so true.   But it has far more than confessional truth. It has structural and ironic echoes of great literature from the past, from Paradise Lost to The Great Gatsby to the aforementioned Joyce. It will sit with Portrait of the Artist, The Country Girls, The DarkLangrishe, Go Down and few others on the shelf given over to the great Irish books about growing up (or not).

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was the winner of the inaugural Goldsmiths prize for "fiction at its most novel."

It was turned down by many major publishers before being taken on by the independent Galley Beggars Press. Buy direct from them to support them.

Since winning The Vapour Trails Book of the Year A Girl is a Half-formed Thing has also gone on to win

 the Irish Novel of the Year

and the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction


  1. Hadn't heard of this author before, but you had me at the "a right hook of a look in his eye" quote. Will definitely keep this in mind for a later date, but I'm going to try to work off my TBR for the beginning of the year at least. Hope you have a (continued) great reading year ahead of you.

    1. This is her first novel and it was only published last year. Irish Literature of Doom, perhaps. Pretty dark and powerful stuff anyway.

  2. Strange. Loads of people raved about this, and it won loads of awards, but it didn't do a thing for me. Reheated Irish Catholic guilt, served up for the delectation of those across the water:


    1. Hi Des, I can see your point even if I disagree strongly. (I tried to reply on your blog but it didn't seem to work) I don't think writers should try to be relevant in the way of newspaper journalism; or worry about what the teacher/English/neighbours think. Writers are constantly disinterring their childhood and young adulthood. I am more interested in the voice than the plot in most novels and I found the voice in this one fascinating and convincing. I think the book is relevant outside the particular timeframe because of the power of its voice and its portrayal of how people can try to use sexuality as a weapon to set themselves free, or as an escape, but end up only trapping themselves further. Only by finding a voice can they really break free.