I was intrigued by 'A girl is a half-formed thing' by Eimear McBride when it appeared on the Women's Fiction Prize shortlist last year (an award it won). I bumped it up the list when I discovered that a stage version has been produced and will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. It's not often that I say this but I have never read a book quite like this before. Experimental is a word that inevitably springs to mind, and no doubt occurs in all the reviews, none of which I had read. I read the first chapter and thought, 'What the hell!!' Having spent a lot of time around small children I could make some sense of what she was trying to get across, but was very relieved that the character became more coherent (but only slightly) as she aged. So we have this girl, and the book happens inside her head; her thoughts, her reactions, her imaginings, her memories. But they are written like thoughts, the way they flit across your mind and never form into 'proper' sentences, are often implied and unfinished. After the first chapter, and deciding I would make a stab at it after all, I stopped expecting anything. All the things you expect from a novel are absent, and yet, somehow still there. There are characters and you come to understand a little of their motivations. There are places and incidents that are described, in a kind of patchwork, that gradually comes together to make a whole. You have to read the whole book in a totally different way. Individual sentences themselves (the bits between a capital letter and a full stop) don't make sense, but once you have read a page something begins to emerge.
So lots of quotes to come now. This first one is quite early on, so she is young, five or six I suppose, in this section you see the exuberance of childhood but she is already learning what is expected of her:
"It's a dangerous place for smacking mass. Any trying to run up and down the aisle. Get back here. Climbing through the seats ahead. Sorry. Sit down. Sucking tissues or getting under the pew. That's a good thump in the back. Stand up here and it goes right through your lungs. I like that, to make men from sucked toilet paper. I have plenty and I never clean my nose. Stop that dirty thing. You get it for GI Joe man banging on the floor. But he's jumping. Ssssh. But Mammy he's. Ssssh. Jumping off Niagara Falls. Stop. That. Now. Ow. Be quiet I said.
And when we go out all the old ones saying would you look at that, and aren't they great at their age you can get them to behave at all. At that age mine were up to all sorts. Sure they had my heart broke. She smiles says they're a handful, but you wouldn't be without them would you? No. Thanks be to God.
Do you like coming to God's house? In the car home. Careful. And for this the answer's yes. Would you not rather be watching the telly? No, Mammy I wouldn't. No." (p.19)
This second one is vivid and heartbreaking, as she watches her brother try and join in a football game and how he is tormented by the other boys:
"Think please just leave the pitch. Please just walk away. It won't be worse than standing there. But you're still trying. Fumbling red for words. He's doing you even as you speak now, to your face. My throat. Is blank. Is sewn up. You shouting what's so funny. I nearly died. I still could. It's still in me. It isn't funny and then, for pity, say why are you laughing about me? They are and laughing more. Your anger permits. Gives goals and goals. You face red thick. Bulged indignated. The bullish face fat with humiliation. Handicap. Handicap. One from the back gets the ball. Kicks and aims. It strikes your face. Bleared with mud. And knock you over. Laughter. Laughter. Never ever will it stop. Not ever. Not ever again. The bell rings and releases you from that place. I close my eyes and wish this day had never been or you or me. I walk back and will not help. Pretend I didn't even see. Did you see me? Look at them hear them talking just a bit embarrassed about it. About what they done. And I will not think of your feelings anymore. For it's a bit too much to know." (p.50)
As a teenager the girl is raped by her uncle, though the situation is ambiguous and later she has an ongoing relationship with him. This incident leads her quite directly into what is described on the cover as 'chaotic sexuality', where she uses sex almost as a means of self identity. If she is seeking some kind of approval all she is going to find within the confines of her mother's religion is disgrace. It's not clear what she is looking for, I don't think she knows herself, but she certainly doesn't find it. She goes off to university and finds a friend who joins her in the chaos, the two of them leading a life of drink and sex. The ongoing bond with her brother is the only thing that gives her cause for concern outside of herself, and when his childhood cancer returns it is her cue to go home. This scene in the hospital shows the importance to her of their relationship:
"When they've gone out we see sitting prop in the bed. You. With some bowl of pudding with your wobble hand eat. Drop it look up say I saved you some. I. And you are, I know, look like five again. So I hug you and say now what have you done? Gone fell over like an eejit. Cracked your head. Well done. Sorry. You laugh all the same. Well done. I am smothered. Air bit strangled by that. So how are you feeling? Ah not too bad. Not too bad a bit tired and they hurt my head. Touch somewhere a bandage and all around shaved. Ah that's nothing wait til you see what I can do for giving me a fright. You laugh. That's calm now and I can do that. So are you truce for a moment? And she says we are. We sit. By your bed. Look at you. Think. Wonder. What is going on?" (p.122)
It is almost impossible to describe this book. It is rather overwhelming because you experience directly the emotional impact of the things that happen to her. It feels like the ultimate example of a small child who's needs have not been met, who wants so much from the people around her, can't articulate that need and finds herself trapped in destructive ways of dealing with a world that makes no sense to her. Tragic and heartrending. Expect to work hard to find the moments of understanding.