All of the reviews that I’ve read of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing quote the opening lines. They wave them as a tattered warning sign of what is to come. I’ll follow the crowd.
“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.”
No, you’re not having a stroke. No, don’t put the book down. It may be well-nigh unintelligible to start with, but the author is no narcissist forging ahead while the reader pants pathetically alongside. McBride is a writer with a mission, who believes that writing for oneself produces “kamikaze missions with no viable legacy for the next generation” like Finnegans Wake.
AGIAHFT may be unwieldy, but it is on no such mission. The technique has been described as placing the reader inside the narrator’s mind at a point before speech – in a pre-linguistic, pre-grammatical space. There are no commas in the whole book, the full stops are scattered to the winds, and syntax is as fragmented as it gets. But you get used to all this after a while, and importantly it does exactly what formal innovation should: it communicates things that traditional form cannot. McBride has said that the novel today “has to describe the parts of life that cannot be described in any other form“, and that’s what this achieves.
All this you notice. What I didn’t notice, until almost the end, was that none of the characters are named. And you barely notice that the themes are so classically, archetypally Irish: a ranting Catholic mother, a guilt-fuelled discovery of sex, an abusive uncle, a family in disarray. Old tracks, really – in the words of the Guardian “bog-gothic standards of any Irish book season” – but the formal ingenuity means that feels totally new and fresh.
The protagonist is in turmoil pretty much constantly, and in early teenagehood, she finds her coping mechanism – sex. Indiscriminate, joyless, desperate. It gives her a disconnection and absence she finds through nothing else. But it’s not a liberated state, free of shame – there is an abundance of shame, so much that each time it temporarily annihilates her, blocking out life. It’s difficult to understand her motivations, and this is another aspect of the book that keeps it totally fresh: there’s a total lack of actual or implied authorial judgement and the narrator does not self-analyse at all. McBride has claimed to “hate a moral” – so you want to make any calls, they’re on you. And as a judge, you find yourself ill-equipped, unsure in the face of all this murk. It’s a welcome complexity in the face of the tortured narrator, who you can’t face with reductive moralising.
It’s a dark book, and any redemption is a non-traditional kind (as if this book would have anything else.) It’s no surprise that it took nine years to find a publisher, but the commentators are right: it’s genius. It’s unique. It’s painful. It’s beautiful. It’s tortured, but it’s lyrical. My conventional sentences just won’t stretch to describe it: if you’ve got patience and the heart to be devastated by humanity, you’ll have to read it yourself.