A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
Coffee House Press, 2014
227 pp., 24.00
Karen Swallow Prior
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
"There is no God here."
God's absence is the overwhelming presence in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the critically acclaimed debut novel by Irish writer Eimear McBride. This line from the novel is important not only thematically but formally as well: it's one of the relatively few complete sentences in a work written almost entirely in the fragments, words, and phrases of immediate and inarticulate sensations, impressions, and half-formed thoughts.
This experimental—successfully experimental, it must be said—language in Girl has garnered McBride numerous awards. Her book won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (the shortlist included Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winner The Goldfinch) and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, and has been nominated for several other prestigious literary prizes.
The novel's unnamed first-person narrator—the titular girl—is, in every sense that really matters, but half-formed, not only from the age of two, when the novel begins, but to the end, when she has reached young adulthood. Even her very name is never given. Indeed, the novel's last words are "My name is gone." McBride's artistic achievement is in so skillfully rendering the language throughout to express the girl's "half-formed" existence.
The story starts with the rupture of trauma: the girl is just two, and her older brother is hospitalized with brain cancer. Opening with a sentence fragment, "For you," the entire work is addressed to the brother, as seen in this characteristic passage taken from near the end of the novel when the brother is in bed, dying:
Turn and you are back asleep. I. Know I lift the cover. Clean up. And now you're gone far. Breathing. Don't see me. Don't know I do. New one. Clean you. Put it in the bin. See. My one act. I might be a person. Beneath the. Where horrible can be a good act of contrition. Shush there. You there sleeping. My boy. My brother. With my eye for yours tooth for your tooth. You're a better. No.+
The lone conventionally complete sentence here: I might be a person.
A willing reader will easily get the hang of the style within a few pages and, once immersed, come to experience the perspective of the narrator through means more visceral than logical, more intuitive than intellectual, more raw than processed. The language re-creates the impressionistic way we experience the world before we translate our experiences into words. The publisher describes the technique as less stream-of-consciousness and more "an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense"—in other words, a life lived in a world without God.
Clearly, McBride is influenced by great Irish writers before her, including Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. Their existential angst and linguistic inventiveness characterize Girl, and McBride has addressed the role these writers have played in her literary formation. "Reading Ulysses," McBride recently told The Guardian, "changed everything I thought about language, and everything I understood about what a book could do." Yet, Girl succeeds in not being simply derivative, even if, as McBride admits, it started out as a "rip-off" of Joyce's Ulysses. Only a writer who could dare such an appropriation could hope to transcend mere imitation. McBride does. For, as one critic notes, Girl has "its roots in 1920s Modernism but also in contemporary life."
Girl embodies the fragmentation of modern life through the novel form in a fashion similar to the fragmentation embodied in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Nothing in the world of the girl is whole: not her family, once her father abandons them; not her brother with the brain cancer splitting his brain; not her mother, who beats her children almost as easily as she prays; not the girl's body, broken in two when her uncle rapes her—and certainly not the language.
Yet, occasionally, and laden with significance for being so rare, grammatically complete units stand out amid the fragments. For example, in the middle of a long section describing an endless series of empty sexual encounters pursued in the wake of the pain wrought by her brother's illness and her childhood rape comes this: "And he kiss me all over like I am alive." The poignancy of this line and others woven throughout helps counterbalance the graphic, disturbing depictions of violence, sex, and emotional anguish that form the novel's overall theme and tone. The complete breakdown of the language in the novel's climax is so expertly and excruciatingly crafted that it will remain one of the most memorable and powerful passages I've yet to encounter in a book. Even so, as mentioned above, God is present here. Among the heap of ruined fragments are glimmers of meaning from the prayers of the girl's Catholic upbringing and biblical images. Doubting assurances that her hospitalized brother will recover, she remarks cynically of the patients there, "Are they picking up their beds to walk to walk after touching which hems that made them whole?" And near the end of the book, comes the longest passage of complete sentences:
Do not be afraid—I will save you.
I have called you by name—you are mine.
When you pass through deep water, I will be with you;
Your troubles will not overwhelm you.
When you pass through fire, you will not be burned;
the hard trials that come will not hurt you.
For I am the Lord your God.
One reading of the book—one I suspect (based on published interviews) McBride herself adheres to—would say that this prayer of the girl, taken from Isaiah 43, is met only with silence. Yet, McBride confessed in The White Review, "I am not as good an atheist as I would like to be." Despite its grimness and pessimism, Girl bears this confession out. So another reading of the novel would say that God is there with the girl, there in the waters to which she returns time and time again, seeking the cleansing of baptism. There is redemption, transformation even. It may not be the one we would seek or want, but—Christ knows—it rarely is. It comes at great cost, even to the reader.
Despite McBride's pioneering inventiveness, her own and some critics' assessments that Girl signals the end of the traditional form of the novel are, shall we say, slightly exaggerated. The novel form carries within it unending possibilities—from the non-linear narrative of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy in the 18th century, to David Foster Wallace's genre-busting Infinite Jest in the 20th century, and James Joyce's inscrutable Finnegans Wake in between. That McBride manages both to build on this foundation and to break sufficiently from it to create something heretofore undone is testament not only to her literary skill but also to the inexhaustible possibilities of the novel form itself.
Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012) and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, coming from Thomas Nelson in November.
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