Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

"A girl is a half-formed thing" by Eimear McBride (Faber, 2013)

Spoiler Alert

Here's the first paragraph of this novel -

For you. You'll soon. You'll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she'll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I'd say. I'd say that's what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Don't panic - that's about as difficult as the text gets. From the first 3-page section it's easy to glean information - "I want to see my son ... It's all through his brain like the roots of a tree ... enjoy him while you can ... Chemo then. We'll have a go at that ... He's saved. he's not. He'll never be ... [the father] says I can't be waiting for it all the time ... What're you saying? Breath. Going? Leaving? But he's just stopped dying. This one's to come ... Where's Daddy? Gone ... There now a girleen isn't she great. Bawling ... I'm so glad your brother's lived.".

So while a little boy's in remission, the father leaves though the mother's expecting again. But what about the surrounding fragments that I've not quoted, the lack of quotemarks, etc? How do they help? I'm not sure that all the distortions are justified. On the back cover it says that when you read the book you "plunge inside its narrator's head, experiencing her world at first hand". It's not really true. She knows who says what, who "he" is at any particular moment, etc., but the reader's sometimes left in the dark. On p.170 for example I had trouble working out who's hurting who. Mostly however the basics are clear, especially when compared with works whose language is similarly described as "extraordinary". I found it more of a cliff-hanging page-turner than a difficult text, but I've read Ulysses a few times, and bits of Finnegan's Wake, so I'm not a typical reader.

The 1st-person PoV is the girl's. "You" is usually the brother and "She" the mother. Section 2 begins

Two me. Four you five or so. I falling. Reel table leg to stool. Grub face into her cushions. Squeal. Baby full of snot and tears. You squeeze on my sides just a bit. I retch up awful tickle giggs. Beyond stopping jig and flop around. I fall crack something. My head banged. Oop. Trouble for you. But. Quick the world rushed out like waters. Slap of. Slap of everywhere smells kitchen powder perfume soap of hedges in the winter dogs and sawdust on a butcher's floor. New. Not new. I remember. Patterned in my brain.

Why doesn't this begin "I'm 2. You're 4 or so. I'm falling."? If the text is supposed to replicate the child's limited grammar skills, then why does that ability improve so rapidly? Why "giggs" rather than "giggles"? Section 3 begins " We're living in the country cold and wet with slugs going across the carpet every night. Now when you are seven eight. Me five ", section II.1 begins "The beginning of teens us. Thirteen me fifteen sixteen you" and II.2 begins "She driving. Me in the passenger seat" so the formulation must have some significance beyond reminding me of "me tarzan you jane". On p.3 we learn more -

Where's that father? Mine? Who belonged to was part of me? I think of. Where is he? Imagination of fathers sitting by me on the bed. Stroking my hair you're my girl, belong to me pet. I have heard of seen those things somewhere on the telly. And I say will you ever tell me what he said about daughters before I was born?

The father's dead. Her brother tries to be one of the lads at school. The others "Snort up clumps of guck from their lungs. You do not. That's to fall foul. You will not do what you're not allowed, even for them. For the comrade nudge of adulation. But you'll find other intimations of their special cool". The diction of that final sentence is a surprise. Intimations? Cool? The brother claims that the operation scar on his head is a knife wound. Their mother's sensitive about it - "She always tug fringe over it. Hide all the memory, says please grow it out a bit long. You will not though some reason of your own". That could have been "She always tugs the fringe over it. 'Hide all the memory,' she says, 'please grow it out a bit long'. You will not". I don't think that the deviations from standard language help, but by now the reader's used to the book's default mode.

For a while the family manages. Later the brother is mocked and bullied at school after they move ("I be new girl", thinks the narrator). A condescending aunt stays. The uncle apologises to the 13 year-old girl, but there's more to him than that -

I'm invaded in my ears by pulse is going round and round. Pumping in my fingers. His touch my face with flat of hand. You are. Oh you're a strange one. A quick one too for all your age so don't think I think I'm not a fool for this. Little madam youth and vigour. Little madam knowitall but I see you. For. What. You. Are. And do you know there's no one home? (p.53)

The staccato delivery works well for their sudden intercourse, the confused rush of emotions and sensations. Could the passage have worked embedded in standard prose? I think so, though the transition's more fluid this way.

She becomes slutty at school, sometimes with her brother's bullies. Her brother finds out, but not her religious mother. She turns over a new leaf, qualifies for college, moves away

I get my A's and B's. I am ready to leap. Go then head first. On the train. I stand with my socks up. With my fingers sticking out. Wave away. Go on away. To the two of you that's groggy from crying. She. You're putting one hand on her shoulder. Take care of yourself and give us a call. Bye then. Bye. Pulling off pulling off for the city. Leaving that. Go back. All you behind. Put breath back in my body. Right now. Next now. What I'll be? (p.81)

She pairs up with a girl, drinks for the first time, becomes permissive again

We are bad her. She and me. My friend I'd call. Run wound to each. Going. Going. Thither thither. Places. Going all aware. Going to no good. Perhaps. Fling. Think never ever thinking I'll look back. Nor do I don't I. I don't know what or I don't know yet. (p.86)

Meanwhile at home, mother feels isolated by the supposedly lazy, computer-game-playing son. The narrator tries to help by talking to her brother, which the mother resents. The narrator rebels more.

I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bad. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for walks. Look ones in the country. I offer up. I offer up in the hedge. I met a man I met with her. She and me and his friend to bars at night and drink champagne and bought me chips at every teatime. (p.96)

She uses up money fast. Someone (her brother? the uncle?) puts money into her account. Her maternal grandfather dies. At the family gathering she sits alone with the dead body, exhibiting some surprizing reactions.

So Granda. I don't talk to the dead. So now. That's strange to see him here. Dead. I could give him a kick if I liked. But it's not worth the hassle now. I could undo his flies for shame. I know he wouldn't have wanted me to. Or kiss. Poke him. Squeeze out at eye. I'd lift it but. Maybe. No. Better not touch. I haven't seen him that to this. He's looking so unrumpled now. (p.101)

It's there that she meets the uncle again.

Say hello to your uncle there. And I do. I go and kiss him on the cheek. The skin. That bone. Which he lets me. Says do you remember me at all? Nod to that say yes. Cunning game but. You haven't changed I say. No you haven't changed at all. See she's still the Madam that she was he says. And laughs. (p.104)


Clapped into the corner and watched him uncle telling jokes for the laugh of them. They like. He comes quite popular up the ranks. His wife does not some reason (p.109)

a passage whose unconventionality sounds forced. Her brother's cancer starts up again. This time it's terminal.

That long night. Loams my eyes. Burn. Lime it. I'll do. I'll. Reach out through it. Catch it before it comes. Quick quick. But it's gone like a rat. Burrow deep and dark where I cannot go. I have. Nothing against this. No defence at all. But. To fall on the spindle. To be turned into the darkness. To be turned into stone. (p.122)

Back at college she calls the uncle, asks him to fly over to comfort her. Her flatmate smells a rat. The narrator asks to be physically and sexually abused by the uncle - maybe a Catholic wish to be punished for sins, or self-sacrifice to obtain a miracle cure for her brother. On p.151 begins a long monologue

I thought about it and I could not stop. All walls mohow do I changiving around inside myself topple over. I can hold. I can hold them up if I cannot if they'll fall in. Where I stood. Where I sat. What sat on my lips and in my mouth. Sour and rank. Like I could trip inside myself. There are so many things. I moved and caught. Who are you who are you now with this slip and nightdress on. With these jeans with this bright red hat. For in that I was swimming. I can do myself. Damage.

She decides to go home for her brother's final weeks. She observes her brother for signs of degradation -

That's the thing. My. Brother. Same as always. Doing all the same. You don't want gravy. You don't want jam on your bread. You want the TV and play kicking games. That's good that's right I am wrong. I heard every single thing wrong. Just that I'm here is the. What? Change. They don't know everything. They can make mistakes. I know I know that's true I know I. Don't do that I. Do it. But only when I can think this way. Now I'm here and seeing you doing right all the things you've ever done. And last night. Though. You. When I heard you singing some song. Wrong. Just. Something in it. Wrong. That line that. Went up. Went down. Don't. Not that easy when that comes. That tumour. Floating sometimes in. In dribs in. Little niggles in. Like a something. Is it? Gone in your ear. (p.157)

The writer uses full stops rather like a poet using line-breaks, but all the same this passage sounds too disrupted. One morning the narrator wakes first -

I make breakfast. Sit there. Coffe quiet new beginning is the boiling kettle bowl of. Bran. Flakes. Good for. Good for me. Not the cold and a pint of milk. So quiet here after the night. Birds. When you are sound a sound asleep. I won't wake you up. Just yet. Let him I think be. Sit. Think of me of the rain when I went march off to school. A long and something time ago. Sweat bus sweat piny sweat me sweat me. (p.158)

More people visit

I comb up my hair. I'd snap it fray strands off. What's the? Coming. I. Don't know. What's the. Another morning and doctor. Stopped car. He's here. That's. That's him coming. Up the. Stroking rain into his pants from the bumper of her car. Right. Galvan. Answer that. Quiet or they'll hear. They'll. I'll. Don't get that but I must. Hello. You're. How are. I'm calm and kind is who I. That's. Come in he's I. And shout are you awake? The doctor's here for. (p.159)

Though the narrator's trying to help, the mother still suspects ulterior motives. It all seems so unfair. The narrator's response is often to run to the lake, have a quickie with some random man. On one occasion her uncle sees, and violently intercedes to "protect" her. The language becomes more distorted -

The hours come. They come. Over all the clock. Around with time. I am sleeping my face on your quilt. Hear the doorbell ringing. Know the cock has crew. (p.172)

I'm unsure about that final sentence. In the next section the writing seems erratic.

I know I must wash and clean my hair my teeth. My putting on my clean my jumper my skirt. People will be here I. Put my lipstick on my mouth. Perfume on my neck my hands my knees where's right. My face don't have its night eyes on. (p.184)

She takes one chance too many by the lake.

Jesus Christ you're green. Look my face. What have you done? See there see it? Oh my God, they said but. Me. See. Me me me not her. What? He. I don't know. What's that inside you now? Hwta the knewit. Gone s. Lost but something. What I. (p.196)

She's struggling to cope.

Ithink i smell of woodwherethe river hits the lakebrownwashfoamy up the bank side Isee allcreaturesthere fish ducklings inthespring spring water going throughmyveins sinktheocean seeoutfar my salt my. Sea firsttime. (p.197)

It turns out that her mother's known for a while about her daughter's other life. There's some sudden straight-talking

I've only so much patience and I've bitten my tongue too long. You have shamed yourself and me and your brother most of all. I can't even look at you. I haven't wanted you in my house. But I allowed you because I thought you were making amends. But not you. Of course not. Selfish to the last. (p.199)

That's the last straw. She visits the lake for one last time.

I see. That face mine in the water. I'm. Crying laughing always happy where water is. I am. Kicking my kicking legs. Extinguish all the lights I can. That's gone. And now that's gone (p.202)

Here's how the novel ends -

Turn. Look up. Bubble from my mouth drift high. Blue tinge lips. Floating hair. air famished eyes. Brown water turning into light. There now. There now. That just was life. And now.


My name is gone.

We never knew her name. Despite the intensity dial hitting 10 quite often - there are religious bigots, 2 deathbed scenes, illegal sex, cancer, violence and suicide - emotions are finely balanced, with most characters having good and bad aspects. The narrator had many traumas to deal with, and little support. She made mistakes in difficult situations. It's an affecting story, and certainly there are passages where the style of the language helps convey confusion, involvement, excitement, etc. But equally there are passages where the emotion or facts are conveyed despite the language.

Within the story-space there's usually no confusion. The characters know who says what. The narrator remembers clearly enough. But in the final stage of communication - the writing-down for the sake of the reader - some information is lost. The reader often need only backtrack to work things out. But why make the reader do that? Deliberate disorientation? There are several reasons for using non-standard prose, amongst them

  • Imitating pre-verbal thoughts - the character semi-consciousness perhaps
  • Emphasising the musicality of the language
  • Making the reader read more slowly, less habitually
  • Making the reader distrust language

I've quoted extensively to illustrate how the style works with varying levels of success. It makes dream and some linguistic traits harder to depict. There are passages that remind me of telegrams (minor words missing, sentences terminating once their meaning's clear), others that remind me of opera's recitative - words bizarrely sung only because there are songs before and after. Joyce does that too. It's far more readable than Ulysses though.

Other reviews

  • Anne Enright (Guardian) (There are moments when you long for the style to settle down, or evolve; the prose at 18 is just as broken as it was at five. But the style is also direct, simple and free of intertextual tricks)
  • Ron Charles (Washington Post) (McBride writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that reflects her narrator’s fragmented and damaged psyche. It’s a method as clever and effective as it is opaque and confusing … I’m not convinced that pride of endurance is sufficient reward for completing “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing.")
  • Isabel Costello
  • Savidge reads
  • Adrian Slatcher (The verbal tics - full stops rather than commas; phrases being cut off before the verb - create a musical lilt that is not only funny, but also stops the flow ever becoming boring … the novel clearly has a desire to tell this story entirely through sensory experience. The only longer blocks of prose are verbatim prayers)
  • Jeffrey Petts
  • an interview (McBride was born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents in 1976, one of four children and the only girl. In 1979 the family moved to Tubbercurry, County Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland. Her father died when she was 8 and in 1991 her mother moved the family to Castlebar, County Mayo. At the age of 17 she left Ireland for London and spent the next three years studying at Drama Centre. About six months after finishing the course her older brother Donagh became terminally ill and she spent most of the following year travelling back and forth to Ireland and the final four months there full time)

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