I did not expect to be cry at the end of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Nor did I expect to be so devastated by the ending. I was left with tears running down my face murmuring no, no, no. I wanted to have read the ending wrong so badly I turned back and read the final few pages again which only served to make me cry even more. Even now just thinking about it I am getting a bit teary.
I’m not sure how to write about this book it is so good. You have probably heard it is not an easy read. The style is challenging but it is beautiful. It has its own rhythms. And even though the sentences are often short and incomplete, it does not feel choppy at all and even is lyrical:
What’s. See it spin. Look around. What if. I could. I could make. A whole other world a whole civilization in this city that is not home? The heresy of it. But I can. And I can choose this. Shafts of sun. Life that is this. And I can. Laugh at it because the world goes on. And no one cares. And no one’s falling into hell. I can do. Puke the whole lot up.
The narrator of the story is the unnamed girl of the title. We begin when she hasn’t even been born yet. The language of the book here is marvelous and difficult and confusing and exactly conveys a sense of being in utero (at least as we can imagine it).
Most of the time the girl is addressing the you who is her brother, two years older than she is. Her brother, before she was born, had a brain tumor. The doctors removed it but his brain was damaged and they can’t promise that the tumor won’t someday return. She loves her brother dearly but the damage is such that he is never able to live on his own and work at anything besides stocking shelves. In spite of how much the narrator loves her brother he is equally as frustrating, especially when they reach their teens and go to a new school. The teenage world is a savage place and she struggles between wanting to protect her brother and throw him to the sharks.
Their father left when they were small and they are raised by a devoutly Catholic mother. Mammy is very protective of her son and has a tendency to take out her frustrations over his disability on her daughter. She frequently tells her daughter she is no good and nothing but trouble. Combine this with the girl’s uncle raping her in the kitchen when she was thirteen and it seems nearly inevitable that the girl tries hard to really be no good. While she does well in school she starts having sex with any boy who asks. Sex becomes a way to punish herself but it also serves as a substitute for the emotional pain she does not know how to deal with. Eventually she escapes home and goes off to college where she and her roommate regularly go out, drink too much and pick up men.
Just when it seems she might be starting to figure things out, her uncle shows up again and sends her spiraling out of control. When her brother’s tumor returns it is almost more than she can bear.
I have managed to make this book sound really depressing, haven’t I? It’s not depressing. It is raw and disturbing and uncomfortable. It is beautiful and heartbreaking. Now and then it is joyful. By turns I wanted to yell at the narrator, laugh, or wrap her in my arms and hold her tight. I cheered for her to find a way through her pain and dreaded that she would never be able to.
You may have heard McBride wrote this book ten years ago when she was twenty-seven. It took nine years for her to find a publisher. I am glad a publisher finally decided to take a chance on Girl. It is an extraordinary book.