A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar)


“She and me. Like to lurk here in the day. Those gossips we have are the very best and we read and read. Quote quotes back forth. That’s good for sharing books of this and that. Word perfect. We snick snack at each other. Correct each other’s grammar. Chew gum and talk and think of sex. I do not say but hint a little. That’s a powerful thing I know.”

Usually the opening quote here is the first sentence of the book – if you cannot get that right, there is not much hope for later really –  but I have broken the rule, as  Eimear McBride likes to do herself;  and the passage above for me better illustrates the true qualities of her writing.

This is a hard read..the ramblings of depraved teenage angst and rebellion. Like Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, which it pipped for the the Baileys prize (previously the Orange),  the story is thickly wrapped in many narrative clothes as sub themes – catholicism, domestic violence, incest etc. The fuck word is used a lot, but this is no titillating shades of grey, but shades of a repressed ugly Ireland. The starkness of tone and imagery is in some contrast to the publicity photos of the very jolly, now Norwich-based, McBride.

I struggled at first to draw a relevant comparison for a first book. The novel I want to refer to is Irene Nemirovsky’s The Misunderstanding for its concision, subtlety, structure and focus where here we have a diabolical diatribe, a conversation dressed in prose without punctuation,  or even that many verbs. I cannot say they are nice sentences because they are not sentences, just utterings, spat out as if at the kitchen table by someone who has got her back turned against you in a teenage acne sulk.

This book is not a movie.

Some reviews I have read just don’t get it, which is as much the book’s fault. It would certainly help to have a better than  everyday knowledge of catholic teaching and not be too squeamish about blasphemy etc. Then the point comes at you like an uppercut in  the middle of a prize fight which you did not see coming.

This is a poem about an Ireland of a certain time in a certain place (Mayo or Galway) probably around 1975 or maybe older (god forbid). She is talking to her older brother who is suffering from cancer and various attempts to cure it. It is brain cancer so he forgets things. He is her St Patrick if you like. She his Mary Magdalen.  This is her confession to him, pointedly not to a priest.

There is a touching love in the narration and a candour where she feels she can share good, bad, sordid, even her lust for violent sex, because he is her brother.

This is not something to pick up from the first lines of : “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.” Nonsense? Gibberish? Showing off? What? Excuse me?

The opening lines of any book should be a compass, never mind where it might be pointing. It should have a north and south. You have to find what you need to love this book in different places.

As she says in the top quote above “I do not say but hint a little. That’s a powerful thing I know.”

Thirteen per cent of all nurses in the NHS at this time were Irish while others came over to drive the buses and clear out the asbestos in Midlands factories. This is in part the why.

Some of the writing becomes addictive, little ponds of beautiful, electric wit, poetry really rather than prose, a verbal gale with hailstorms of imagery and great puddles of reflections.  Slip around at random a few pages and you get: “Them clomping into the kitchen. Their daughters exasperate the cold. They clunk the range and stir the turf and turn the electric kettle on”.

And when we get to the harrowing crescendo – because it is a crescendo and it is horror-story harrowing – the words become forced into even further apopleptic contortions: “Ver the always. here. mY nose my mOuth I.” and then: “He stopS up gETs. Stands uP. Look.”

There is a vivid description of a dying. But where part of the story is about a death, it is also an assassination attempt, a would-be murder  to kill off a dark guilt-laden suffocating era; a last strangled scream of unhappiness and rage, the scream of an Irish samurai as she raises her sword.

Some people, McBride herself, have talked, obviously, inevitably, boringly of James Joyce being an influence, but  you might say equally another Gaelic poet Dylan Thomas in Under Milkwood  shares the same intimacy of tone, the same cracklingly lush language, the same play on sentences, the same sense of doom, the same microscopic focus on date and place. Unfortunately McBride rather outdoes him in terms of the dirt, the vomit, the fuck, the morbidity.

For those who enjoy wallowing in nationalistic self pity this is epic…read that as Ireland is a Half-formed Thing…


About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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