November 2014

Charlotte Freeman


A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

I can't remember the last time I was as thrilled by a book as I was by A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Sitting on my couch, I had to refrain from whooping with joy at the sheer daring of the thing. McBride has said her project was to depict "the moment before language becomes formatted thought," and she runs headlong at it, taking the reader inside the life of an unnamed girl, somewhere in Ireland, from her swimmy consciousness in the womb, all the way through to her death by suicide in a cold Irish lake.

The story of this novel is by now well known -- the manuscript, written in a six-month blaze, submitted all over London to publishers who wrote glowing rejection letters, claiming they loved it but had no idea how to sell it. McBride wouldn't, couldn't rewrite it, and into a drawer it went until years later: her husband was chatting up a local bookstore owner in Norwich who said he was starting a press for exactly that kind of book and could he see it? Reviewed in The Times of London, then the London Review of Books and The Guardian, where fellow Irish writer Anne Enright called it a "work of genius," the little book that could went on to win the Goldsmiths Prize, Folio Prize, Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, and Desmond Elliott Prize for Debut Novelists. This fall, the Samuel Beckett Theatre put on a one-woman show based on the book, adapted by Annie Ryan and acted by Aoife Duffin. Out of the drawer indeed.

And yet, there was no bidding war in the US for the novel. In an interview in The White Review, McBride cites an American house rejecting the novel because they feared that "[B]road-mindedness is a thing of the past and that McBride's brilliant and moving novel will suffer in the marketplace as a result." Thank goodness it was picked up by Coffee House Press, of Minneapolis, demonstrating once again (as if any of us needed reminding) why the independent presses are so important.

This is an odd and dark book, a headlong rush through a painful and damp and unredeemed short life, a life narrated with such energy and fervor that the very structure of the sentence, of grammar and paragraph must be shoved out of the way in order for this voice to emerge. McBride cites Joyce, and Ulysses in particular, for breaking open her head, for showing her a language in which this story could be told, and while the debt to the modernist literary project of directly narrating thought and sensation is clear, it's as if someone took those tools and distilled them. Gone are Joyce's puns and puzzles and web of allusion. Gone is Stein's circular wordplay. Gone is Woolf's preoccupation with the shifting light of unspoken emotion between characters of good breeding. What we're left with is a girl, an unnamed girl, narrating her rocket ride through a life in which sorrow piles upon sorrow, love is twisted into sexual abuse, and abasement becomes its own path of dark transformation.

It was certainly not this plot, such as it is, that had me whooping with joy. It was the audacity of the project and the sheer energy with which McBride pulls it off. This is no middlebrow novel of sorrow redeemed. The language is wild and precise, lacking commas altogether, using the full stop to create a language that is as close to felt experience as one can get. And yet, it is not a "difficult" read. It takes about ten pages to get the hang of what she's doing, and then I was fully onboard with the narrative voice, totally immersed in the experiences of the Girl, fully engaged in her attempts to both understand and avoid understanding what is happening to her.

I find myself resisting summary here, and even resisting the reviewer's task of describing the style of this book. This is the kind of book you foist on a friend with the admonition that they need to stick out the first twenty pages, that it's great, that they need to read it. McBride rejects easy storytelling at every turn. She rejects the conventions of grammar. She rejects the tyranny of the redemption narrative to tell a more difficult story, the story of one individual girl's choice to transform her state. She tells a tale of illness and cruelty and abuse and death through the consciousness of this girl with such energy and drive that despite a story that really might give you nightmares (I'm not the only reviewer to report this effect), this remains a book that electrifies.

It is a beautiful, audacious, glorious novel. It deserves all the prizes it won, and I'm grateful to McBride, and the Galley Beggar and Coffee House presses, for believing that there are still readers out here who want something other than the pat and predictable, who will read an experimental novel, particularly one like this where the prose is so carefully honed, where we feel that we've lived inside this particular consciousness all the way through to the very end.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566893688
227 pages