If you’re a regular reader of the UK literary papers, or if you follow a number of bookish people on Twitter, chances are you’ve already heard of McBride’s debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. She’s garnered an impressive set of reviews in the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books and earlier this week was included on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize. Not bad for a book that after years of rejections was finally published by the small independent Galley Beggar Press earlier this year.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is set in an unnamed part of Ireland. The narrator – the girl of the title – tells her story and that of her older brother. In the short, first chapter it’s made apparent that all is not well:
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 he 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 girl’s brother has something ‘…through his brain like the roots of trees’. The sister addresses the story to him, telling him about his own life as well as the things that are happening to her.
She begins ‘Two me. Four you five or so’, moving through a childhood oppressed by people’s religious beliefs, particularly their maternal grandfather’s and the local church goers who begin having Bible meetings in their house:
They polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue or black and green coats if the day has rain. Their boots in the hallway, crusty with cow dung or wet muck. If in Sunday skirts, every pleat a landscape of their grown-up bodies. Tired. Under-touched. Flesh having run all night after the cows. Flesh carry sacks of turf up lanes from the shed and spurt out child and child and child. Son he wanted. Girl he did not. Making frys at all hours and smell of cigarettes called fags by them. Lily of the valley and Vaseline. This country’s awful in the winter. Brown skin nylons. Leatherette shoes.
The girl and her brother live with their mother. Their father, it appears, has long since left the family home. The mother struggles with raising her two children, especially, as time progresses, her daughter.
The daughter’s story takes her to the cusp of adulthood and is one of poverty, of being beaten by her mother, of being sexually abused by her uncle, of rebellion, of seeking out dangerous situations seemingly as a way to numb herself to the utter bleakness of her situation. It is a story that leaves the reader feeling battered, bruised and broken.
What’s most impressive about A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing though is McBride’s prose. Formed largely of stuttering sentences – some short, some merely fragments – she builds pictures of people and of incidents whose impact is all the more forceful for this lexical brick-by-brick approach. It is an impressive feat for any writer to experiment with language to this degree, never mind a debut author. It marks McBride as a talented individual unafraid to take risks and challenge traditional methods of storytelling. Her career will be one to follow very closely indeed.
Thanks to Galley Beggar Press for the review copy.
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It sounds like the kind of story that no one would want to publish. Why bother with a girl’s/woman’s issues in the most patriarchal setting (for it being Catholic, not Irish) in the 20th century? Huge congrats to Eimar McBride for the prize. It is time that these kind of stories get to be heard and read.
Yes, that plus the style make it easy to see why it was turned down so many times. Thank goodness for an independent press willing to take a risk.
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