When I finished this book recently, I tweeted “You’re going to have to read this book, I’m afraid. I know, but there it is. Truly upsetting but impossible to shake.” That might do for a recommendation, and if you’re convinced, then don’t read on: go get it. After all, I seem to be in good company, and novelists in particular seem to like it. Lee Rourke called it “truly one of the best novels I’ve read.” For Stuart Evers it is “a fucking wonder of a novel.” Away from the brevity of social media, Anne Enright called it an “instant classic” and its author “definitely a genius.” Even Adam Mars-Jones, no pushover, thought it “remarkable” and “harshly satisfying,” and looked forward to a time “when this little book is famous.”
That “harshly satisfying” is the key to why it might be important to say more about A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. (Mars-Jones added that “if every book was as intense as this, reading literature would be even more of a minority pursuit than it is already.”) It is a book which both is and is not difficult, and not just because of its form. But its form is the most clearly striking thing about it. It begins like this.
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
It doesn’t make sense, at least not in the usual way. But there’s something pleasing about it, something rhythmic and addictive, that keeps the reader going. By halfway down the first page, we know that it’s about a child with health problems (“Nosebleeds, head aches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up”), and by the bottom of the first page we know why: “We done the best we could. There really wasn’t much. It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees.”
Soon the pieces fall, if not into place, then with enough space in the jumbles and overlaps to see where we are. The narrator is an Irish girl. The “you” of her story is her brother, two years older and, against medical expectations, still alive. “There’s good news and bad news. It’s shrunk. He’s saved. He’s not. He’ll never be.” The family consists of just the children and their mother. Father has gone, but there are other men around, notably an uncle and a grandfather, their mother’s father, whose reputation precedes him. “That man was sterner stuff than us. A right hook of a look in his eye all the time. […] Movie star father with his fifteen young. His poor Carole Lombard fucked into the ground.” He roars into the early pages, what the Irish would call a “good-living” hypocrite, full of damnation and not much mercy. The narrative unrolls edgelessly from his religiose ranting – “but sure what’s the point. It’s like talking to that brick wall. You were always a selfish. No. Don’t please daddy me now” – to the children and their mother’s terrified reaction. “Such a quiet house after. Car blistering road beneath. She covered face up and whooping in her throat. Forcing air in. Shaking with tears. Tight as bows we sat.”
And if grandad isn’t quite Clive Dunn, then nor is uncle’s behaviour very avuncular. This is, in that sense, a truly Irish family story – so Anne Enright seems a natural enough fit as a critic, though this book makes The Gathering look like Ballykissangel. That’s the other side of why A Girl is a Half-formed Thing can be difficult to read: it’s awful stuff, it really is. The antics that go on! But the structure of the story at least is straightforward, taking us on a pretty direct line through the girl’s childhood and youth. Here is where the uncompromising style – which has hardly any sentences that simply say what is happening – softens a little, beginning with comparatively reader-friendly scene-setters like “The beginning of teens us. Thirteen me fifteen sixteen you.” After a time the language becomes less daunting: it is broken, yes, but mostly literal and direct. There are more full sentences than at first you think: it’s just that when surrounded by chips of language, they tend to look lost and broken themselves. The story is not in the end all that hard to follow, because it is pretty simple, and brutal. The fragmented phrases enable McBride to reach incredible pitches of intensity in certain scenes – in the areas that you might expect, such as sex (“like a great surprise has taken place”), violence, death.
Like all risks, it sometimes looks as though McBride’s narrative style might not pay off. In one strong snapshot of memory, where the girl recalls an addiction to eating chalk in school, it veers worryingly towards Stanley Unwin (“Didn’t lick the blackboard just my hand. Smacked it palmly on. And sweet chalk powder licky to my tongue”). Elsewhere, the accumulation of spot-on bits and crumbs gives way to the occasional forced observation, as when the girl plaintively asks “How would they ever understand my life is more than cider?” or over-astutely describes a group of cooing matronly women as “under-touched”. It is, also, impossible to read the book without wondering why it has been written in this remarkable way. It reflects, presumably, the voice of the background mind, the mad obsessive subconscious, seeing only the spikes and depths of its owner’s experiences. It might also be an angled view of things which are too horrible to look directly in the eye. McBride, in an interview, says that as she wrote the book, she had over her desk a line of Joyce’s: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” The other question raised by the style is whether this is the voice of the girl’s contemporaneous consciousness, or whether she is remembering. The vigour and vividness of the descriptions would suggest the former – it’s all happening live, we’re in the thick of it – but the failure of the style to develop or ‘mature’ as she ages from child to adult suggests that these are memories. Plausibly, given the circumstances of her life, it suggests that the girl may be as damaged in her own way as her brother.
What is unquestionable is that this way of writing becomes a way of thinking: the words are processed in the brain differently because they go in differently. They swirl, and settle. In bypassing normal ‘civilised’ sentence construction, the story seems to bypass the rational part of the mind and make a direct hit on an emotional centre instead. That is helped by the relentless events, and the answers given to questions like: if this woman is formed by her family (“Roots come growing. Slowly and tangle in”), what happens when her beloved brother is taken away? This isn’t – let’s not muck about – a gentle book. It is a wrenching book, full of the worst, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s an aesthetic wonder all the same. It’s terrible beautiful.