[I received a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing from its Canadian publisher Simon & Schuster Canada. This does not affect my opinion of the book.]
When A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year, my interest was piqued. I was familiar (or at least had heard of) many of the books on the shortlist but I hadn’t heard about this one. After a little digging on the internet I learned that it had not been published in Canada yet, so that only fueled my curiosity even more. From reading interviews and reviews of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, I was able to immediately gather that it a very unique book – one that deconstructs language and is told in somewhat fragmented pieces – and I knew that I would have to give the book a try. I was so excited when I was approached to review the book because it had quickly become one of my must-reads for the year.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing follows an unnamed narrator as she navigates the complexities of growing up in a cruel world. Her brother is a young cancer survivor with whom she has a tender but difficult relationship. Her mother was raised religiously by a very strict father who tries to impose his views on everyone in the family. Her aunt and uncle bring more trouble than comfort, and when something happens between our narrator and a family member, she is left damaged and lost. Will she be able to find light in this bleak world? Can our narrator find love and acceptance in a world where her brother is teased and looked down on constantly?
I’ll be the first to say that this is not the easiest book to read, both in terms of its contents and the way that the content is delivered. (I have to quickly add that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’ll touch on my thoughts on that later.) A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is written in fragmented sentences with no clear indication of who the narrator is talking to or about when she’s not describing herself. However, the reader does eventually come to learn who the various “hes” “shes” and the only “you” stands for. Though confusing at times, I did notice that the dialogue, whenever available, acted as a solid guiding point to help me get back on track. So, yes, the book does require a slight learning curve in order for the reader to fully immerse themselves into the writing but I found that once I hit a stride with the narrative, I was completely sucked in. The power of writing in a sort of pieced together stream-of-consciousness is that it really allows the reader to envision themselves as the narrator and get inside her head. It added a tone of confusion, desperation, loneliness. When I went through the horrible things the narrator experiences as she grows up and becomes a young woman, it was not an uncommon thing for me to feel something tugging at my heartstrings. The details of the narrator’s sex life is never easy to read and is often very uncomfortable and harrowing. This is, ultimately, a very sad and difficult book.
That being said, among the sadness and pain, there is a fierce love in the book. Though the narrator and her brother have a difficult time growing up, it is obvious that she loves him very much. It was heart-wrenching to see them whenever they didn’t get along, but so comforting when they did. For me, the narrator’s love for her brother was one of the only sources of hope in the novel, and I held onto that, hoping it would never go away. Ultimately, I realize that A Girl is a Half-formed Thing will not be a book for everyone, but I do commend McBride in writing so courageously. It is obvious that she took a lot of time to plan each sentence, as the pacing of the novel feels effortless but deliberate. Even though the fragmented sentences may seem daunting to carry throughout the whole book, I had little to no problems sticking with it. Overall, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a very affecting coming-of-age novel, and is a book that will be hard to forget.
Verdict: A difficult read both in terms of content and form, but one that is daring and takes risks that pay off. The reader, once adapted to the fragmented English, easily slips into the mind of the narrator and feels her experiences as if they were their own. It paints a dreary picture that is redeemed by a strong familial love between siblings.
Read if: You are interested in reading a prize-winning book that tests the limit of language, want to immerse yourself completely in another’s thoughts and experiences (no matter how painful they may be), want to see why A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is such a love it or hate it novel.