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Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

This novel has received a lot of publicity, with some critics hailing it as entirely original and the work of genius. It took nearly ten years for McBride to find a publisher, till a small press picked it up. Others have been less enthusiastic, not least because it is a difficult novel. The start of the novel reminded me of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which starts with baby talk. Indeed, McBride has admitted to being very much influenced by Joyce. I was about 25 when I read Ulysses, but after I read that I thought, OK, everything is going to be different from this moment on and everything I have written is just preparation for where I want to go next. by Joyce. McBride, telling her story of the half-formed girl, uses this baby-talk style, at least at the beginning of the novel (the heroine’s story starts in the womb), and continues to use what might best be described as free-form stream of consciousness. I am not sure that this makes it genius, though it does make it difficult to read. The girl in question has not had an easy life. She was born in rural Ireland. Her father had abandoned the family and then died. Her brother has a brain tumour. She had been very close and devoted to him before but, after the brain tumour, he is a different person and is mocked and teased by the other children. Her mother is somewhat puritanical and somewhat feckless. She tells her daughter off for showing her knickers, doing forward rolls,though obviously the young girl has no idea why this is wrong.

While it does get a bit easier to read as she gets older, it still continues in the disjointed sentence style. Inevitably, she discovers sex. Sadly, the first person she discovers sex with is her uncle (her mother’s brother), when she is thirteen. He and his wife visit for a while and he takes advantage of the visit to sexually assault her. She tells no-one but confronts him six years later, at her grandfather’s funeral. He is only mildly apologetic. They have sex together later. She has various sexual relationships but not loving ones. McBride has commented that female sexuality is more complex than most men think and she is almost certainly right. However, it certainly seems to me that the woman (never named) in this book is looking for love in all the wrong places. Whether she is looking for a father-substitute, mistakes sex for love or just wants a good fuck, I cannot believe that what she is doing is particularly complex. I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for walks. Long 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. I met a man with condoms in his pockets. Don’t use them. He loves children in his heart. No. I met a man who knew me once. Who saw me around when I was a child. Who said you’re a fine looking woman now. Who said come back marry me live on my farm. No. I met a man who was a priest I didn’t I did. Just as well as many another one would. I met a man. I met a man. Who said he’d pay me by the month. Who said he’d keep me up in style and I’d be waiting when he arrived. No is what I say. I met a man who hit me a smack. I met a man who cracked my arm. I met a man who said what are you doing out so late at night. I met a man. I met a man.

In her late teens, when she has failed dismally at school, she gets a job as a shelf-stacker and then moves away from her mother, not least so that she and friend can enjoy life (drink, sex, drugs) without parental intervention. She gets thrown out of pubs for misbehaving. However, her brother takes a turn for the worse and this is the most poignant part of the novel as it seems that he might die. She still remains very attached to him and is clearly very saddened by his condition.

McBride has said that she was trying to write about the images she saw in her head. However, much of the novel seems like a litany of the usual Irish stereotypes: religion, sex, drunkenness, child abuse, blasphemy, drugs, profanity. (These stereotypes are not, of course, unique to the Irish.) McBride has admitted as much and says just as English male writers have to write a war book, Irish writers have to do a book about these Irish stereotypes. I did finish the book but I do not think that McBride is a genius, at least on the evidence of this book. I found the disjointed sentence style distracting and awkward. Of course, she points out, since Joyce, the novel has moved on and writers cannot be writing Jane Austen style novels. That is true but there are many writers who are writing excellent novels – just look at her fellow shortlist nominees for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction; five excellent novels and no disjointed sentences. Anne Enright is a writer I admire but I have to disagree with her assessment of this book.

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Galley Beggar Press