A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. By Eimear McBride

Difficult to read, but at times breathtakingly sharp, and sometimes amusing, Eimear McBride’s bleak coming of age novel is at once refreshingly honest and darkly disturbing. She challenges the reader to concentrate on every line and every half sentence. Skipping isn’t an option.

Set in a socially conservative and repressive late 20th century Ireland the story is written in short punchy sentences often mixing dialogue with thoughts in a stream of consciousness style and incorporating descriptions and sensual sensations such as smell and touch. The story moves from the unnamed writer’s childhood through to her teens and onto early adulthood changing its language to more finished prose but still retaining the angry visceral sentences that constantly jar and sometimes shock.

In one sense it’s the archetypal Irish novel in the runny nosed, alcoholic, backward, poverty handicapped, sexually repressed, religiously dominated Republic haunted by the characters in Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and James Joyce’s Ulysses with its priests, absence fathers and broken families.

It was at its best when at its most hormonally charged when we all flood our minds with images and words in a traffic jam of information such as this section in Chapter 4 of Part 2 when she’s at school. “And out of my throat comes a voice I don’t know that says in words my thoughts out loud. The lads in your year are fucking scum and bastards and thicko picg-ignorant culchies. What? They stick of hair gel on too thick and biactol that doesn’t even work.”

Did I enjoy it? It wasn’t an easy read and I kept wishing McBride would use more conventional description, punctuation and dialogue from time to time. Some of it was intensely powerful such as the sex scenes, when her abusive mother hit her and in particular the moments with her brother. The teen diary notes were so evocative like this when she describes a friend at the beginning of Chapter 4: “She smells like biscuits. Crisps. Old fags in her oil and in her hair. I think her knickers must stink down there. It wafts up when she crossed her legs.”

There are also sections where we hear the voices of the other characters, including her mother, the ghastly uncle, the priest and the “holy joes”. While the tenderest moments are with her brother who has suffered brain damage and eventually dies leaving her, “Your face that eyes are open wide. See the land and all above mine. Your eyes are where are. They look. When and a tinge of purple on your cheeks choke purple blue. Across your mouth. Across your lips. I see your suffocated eye. Please don’t go.”

With a rape, with violence, with bullying, and a suicide attempt it’s pretty grim stuff and although I found some of the content compulsive, in the end it was too bleak to enjoy. Full marks for originality but it was a tough read.

Harry Mottram