Skip to main content
book review

In McBride’s novel, echoes of Joyce, O’Brien and Faulkner.Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press

This shockingly honest, devastatingly beautiful debut novel by the Irish writer Eimear McBride begins with a sentence fragment: "For you." The speaker is a young girl, the you in question her brother. A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a novel about, among other things, the intense, doomed relationship between these two siblings.

The girl's brother miraculously survived brain surgery when he was a child, but he and his family have been scarred in the process. The girl's father leaves and her mother must raise her two children poor and alone. Her son seems to have suffered brain damage as a result of the surgery, and is ostracized by his peers. He grows thoroughly dependent on his sister's fierce protection. The early brush with death seems to be more a promise of death's return than a near-miss. McBride records a rage against the absurdity of illness, the brute, democratic arbitrariness of a child's brain tumour. And she does so in language as vivid, damaged, half-formed and urgent as its young narrator.

The novel opens with the half-learned language of a toddler. We see the world as it is seen at the height of the leg of a stool. There is repetition, stuttering, and gapping lapses; a groping in the dark for meaning, as language slowly accrues.

"I know. The thing wrong. It's a. It is called. Nosebleeds, head aches. Where you can't hold."

Language is in the sway of entropy here, nothing holds together and through the chinks and tears, something raw and scraped bare rises up: "You white-faced feel the needle go in. Feel fat juicy poison poison young boy skin. In your arteries. Eyeballs. Spine hands legs. Puke it cells up all day long. No mammy don't let them."

The childlike rhyming of "in" and "skin" is unnerving in the face of the monstrous pain being visited upon a little boy. The vocabulary is often simple, each word just one or two syllables, each sentence little more than subject/verb/object, and sometimes less, hardly an utterance, and yet the magnitude of the narrator's empathy for her brother shines through.

The sentences become entirely jumbled and out of order when there is no reason or order or hope. There is a cadence in McBride's prose that is sometimes musical, sometimes dissonant and harsh.

Throughout the girl eavesdrops on what the doctors tell her mother: "It's all through his brain like the roots of a tree. Sorry. Don't say. That." The prose stops mid-sentence when the narrative becomes too disturbing for the girl to absorb.

McBride was awarded the prestigious 2014 Bailey's Prize for this novel. She admits to having been influenced by Joyce's Ulysses and Irish writer Edna O'Brien's Country Girl. Other reviewers have compared her experimentation with language to Beckett and Stein, but I am reminded of Faulkner's Benjy, the developmentally-delayed boy in The Sound and the Fury, and Benjy's sister Caddie, who cares for her vulnerable brother as a child with the same fervent gentleness and anxiety as the girl in McBride's novel.

Like Faulkner, McBride is willing to take a hammer to language, let it shatter all over the floor in order to find out what language is – not as an academic exercise, or a stylish trick – but because something big is at stake. The why of pain and loss and powerful love. Language makes us as we make it. If we want to know what it is to experience deeply, to name that experience, we must unearth the tree roots of language buried in the brain.

Like the children acquiring language in the first pages of this book, the reader must grapple with the girl's sentence fragments and monosyllabic blurts, the stripped-down vocabulary, first of a child, and then a young woman traumatized by poverty, grief, and the need to create herself from nothing.

Both Faulkner's Caddie and McBride's half-formed girl create themselves by breaking the sexual taboos of their respective times.

McBride's girl engages in punishing, abusive, anonymous sex, while drunk and high. She has sex with her uncle by marriage when she is only a child of 13. When she is an older teenager the same uncle asks her if he is guilty of child sexual abuse. She does not let him accept responsibility for his actions. And it is in this denial that the narrator is most unreliable, and we are reminded that she is still half-formed thing, and despite of all she has been through, still a child.

Sex and self-destruction seem to be a matter of control in a world where the girl has no control. It is a guilty cry for debasement. It is as if the sex here is a self-inflicted antidote to the shame of poverty, the claustrophobic, repressive presence of Catholicism, and the fear and horror of losing her brother.

McBride does not shy away from this disturbing portrait of self-destruction and loss. There is little redemption here, except that the story is told, and a new language is fashioned for the telling, and through the telling a girl emerges.

Lisa Moore is the author of Caught.