Despite its recent successes – winning the inaugural Goldsmiths prize, shortlisted for the Folio Prize and a current contender for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction – A Girl is a Half-formed Thing has not been universally well received. Heralded as ‘virtuosic’, ‘remarkable’ and ‘unique’ but simultaneously ‘pretentious’, ‘challenging’ and ‘incomprehensible’, I remained unsure as to what to expect from such a divisive novel.
Following the stream of consciousness of an anonymous young girl, the reader is pulled into a fractured narrative, physically distressed by its content. Driven by the familial relationship between sister and brother – the latter always referred to as ‘you’ – and the effect that his brain tumour has on her life and decisions, the story reaches out and pulls the reader into an intimate and viscerally tormented experience. I can understand why many fail to complete this book – its structure from beginning to end is founded on short, jarring sentences and words, always punctuated with full stops. It makes for a heady, shaken experience and at first requires deep concentration to engage with the plot. For me, however, after the first few pages, I adapted to this startlingly original style and soon after found it absolutely crucial to its success as a novel.
The fact that this is not an easy read extends far beyond its structure. This is a dark story that at times I found unnerving and nauseating. The fact that I did not enjoy it is far from a criticism. I felt compelled to read and became so immersed in the girl’s challenges and subsequent decisions that by its close I felt broken, bereft and raw – the book’s title haunting my innermost feelings for the rest of the day.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing centres on the loss of self and the instinctual need to become ‘whole’ again. With the tumour creating distance between brother and sister there is an overwhelming sense of desperation to hold on to a connection that cannot be replicated. Similarly, having lost the right to choose as the target of sexual abuse (a scene that had me looking around a packed train carriage, appealing for help in my mind), our protagonist continually attempts to define herself through using her sexuality that she was forced to discover too young.
In a world dominated by conformity and rules, I can see why A Girl is a Half-formed Thing has had to fight its way to be noticed. But thank goodness it has finally been published and recognised. Though it isn’t a book that I would merrily pick up again for a quick flick, nor would I hand it to another without caution, it is one that has broadened my perspective on what can still be achieved in literature today. As I resurfaced from this suffocating world, gasping for my own thoughts and longing for affirmation of hope and goodness, I, admittedly, felt pretty bleak. However, it is undeniable that this work offers a new facet to modernist literature and that this will not be the last we hear of Eimear McBride. She has an astonishing talent that warrants close attention. I simply have no idea how the Baileys Prize judges are going to choose a winner this June.