Winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the debut novel of Eimear McBride, it’s easy to understand why it took 10 years to find A Girl is a Half-formed Thing a publisher. Written as the stream of consciousness of an unnamed female, addressed to her younger brother, the “you” of the novel, it is certainly challenging, both in the harrowing subject matter and in the style of prose, which is as unformed and chaotic as its narrator’s psyche.
The novel follows the narrator from her first years, through adolescence and into university as she struggles to find meaning in a life marred by her younger brother’s childhood cancer. The siblings share a close bond during their formative years, raised in challenging circumstances by an aggressively Catholic, repressive mother, but this begins to disintegrate in their teens under numerous pressures, not least the narrator’s fledgling sexuality. Emotionally damaged, she seeks solace—or, perhaps, power—in promiscuity, in the archetypical behind-the-bike-shed manner of troubled youngsters. This begins with a sexual encounter with an uncle at a very early age and sinks to levels of deeper and deeper debauchery in later life, including at one point a troublingly masochistic relationship.
The relationship between the siblings has been described by Anne Enright in The Guardian as “a clean space in a soiled world”; their underlying love for one another is too pure not to be affected by the narrator’s struggle with a sexuality that seems to come to define her. The gulf between the two becomes physical when the narrator flies the nest, seeking a new life in the city—a life filled with alcohol-fuelled one-night-stands and apparently little else—leaving behind her a brother who is stuck in a kind of perpetual childhood. Left brain-damaged after surgery to remove a tumour, he is trapped in a life that leads nowhere, with a dead-end job as a shelf stacker and an infantile dependence on his mother, escaping as often as possible into the virtual world offered by video games.
An intriguing aspect of the novel is the tension between cleanliness and the sullied, which is closely linked to the narrator’s relationship with religion. The narrator revels in the act of defiling herself, apparently enjoying most of all those acts that leave a physical mark upon her (a split lip here, black eye there), wanting to wear her sins externally, not just inside of her. She also harbours an obsession with the purifying promise of water, in an interesting parallel of religious rituals. A local lake is returned to time after time, as both setting of many an impersonal romp in the bushes, but also as the sight of ceremonial attempts at self-cleansing—first, and very vividly, as a frightened catholic child, trying desperately to purge herself of the lust that has blossomed inside of her for the first time.
It’s the style of prose that really makes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing so unique, a uniqueness which is reflected in its recipience of the Goldsmith’s Prize, which rewards fiction for opening up “new possibilities for the novel form”. The book begins thus: “For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin. She’ll wear your say.”, and if you find yourself waiting for the narrator to age and the prose to be brought under control, you’ll be waiting a long time. Fragmented sentences reign supreme throughout, and there’s no denying it takes a certain degree of patience to get through—something I confess I did not think I would have enough of when I first began. For those that persevere, the text is a rewarding and shocking foray deep into the pits of sexual awakening and depravity, and the strength of sibling love.