Book Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Sunday 20 July 2014 by

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride, Faber & Faber, BookA Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

Published by Faber & Faber

Eimear McBride’s award-winning debut novel tells the story of young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, it is a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world at first hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it isn’t always a revelation.


Shocking, intimate and uncomfortable is right. Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is another of the much-discussed novels of 2014, and it is instantly obvious why.

In 203 brief pages, it will leave you raw and shaken. We are taken on the journey inside the head of our unnamed protagonist as she grows up with her Catholic mother, absent father, and older brother who barely survived a brain tumour. From battling childhood and school to discovering her sexuality to leaving home to her relationship with her brother, our protagonist narrates a life full of rage and fear and uncertainty.

The narration itself is quite difficult to follow until you get in to the swing of things – abrupt, incomplete sentences, confused monologues with words in all the wrong places – when it says stream of consciousness it’s not kidding. The voice is brutally clear and uncompromising – at times it made me blush to read it in public.

As a read, you will be exhausted by it. There are some novels that turn you inside-out and leaving you breathless, and this is one. McBride’s writing is astounding, and its subject is unbending in its head-on approach. But it is also a tough read, not because of its style (I do have to warn you that it is quite hard to just read), but because of the content. Those secret, inner thoughts that you would never dare to admit you have, the protagonist displays them for all to see. But she is also deeply flawed – self-abusive in shocking and distressing ways and her volatile reactions throughout will make you deeply uneasy.

I can’t really say if I enjoyed this book or not, because I’m still reeling from the experience. I think that as a novel that pushes boundaries, this is up there with A Clockwork Orange, but much like Clockwork, it takes some time to come to terms with what you’ve just read. The mixed feeling it has received in reviews is understandable – it’s a book that we are unsure what to make of. That McBride is a skilled writer, and the subject a strong one, of that we have no doubt, but the brutality of its execution is shocking and unnerving. The characters are sympathetic whilst being repulsive. The writing is intense and hard to grasp, its subject matter confused and half-absent. There is nothing easy about this read, but there is something almost cathartic in its execution, in reaching the end and taking that gasping breath of fresh air.

This is a claustrophobic novel that drags you in – regardless of choice – and throws you about to leave you raw and flustered at the end. On the one hand, brilliant, on the other, it should come with a warning label.

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