Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Eimear McBride's A girl is a half-formed thing

Courtesy; Faber and Faber
Eimear McBride's girl might be half-formed but Minerva's discussion of this challenging book sure wasn't. It. Was. A. Lively. Discussion. Read on as I "trup trup" through it ...

Around the table

As we sometimes do, we went around the table asking Minervans for their overall impression or response. Listen in to what we said:


  • I recommended it because I heard the author interviewed and she sounded interesting, but I couldn't finish it.
  • I loved this book. I loved how the style and the language mirrored the girl's emotions. I cried.
  • It's the worst book I've ever read. I saw it as "verbal impressionism".
  • It was challenging to read but the style was interesting. I felt if I stopped to analyse what I was reading I'd lose it. It was painful, gorgeous, tenderly done but I wasn't sure about maintaining that style all the way through.
  • It was tough going but the style was interesting. Is there an Irish story that isn't tragic?
  • I couldn't read it but I read a few reviews.
  • This is how traumatised people think and talk. I think the language did develop, did become more coherent.


  • Then the discussion proper

    The round-table was then followed by a pretty unformed free-for-all discussion that your correspondent found hard to capture but will give it her best shot. This means I'll be grabbing the scattered ideas which I jotted down as I was engaging in the discussion myself and will try to form it into some sort of whole!

    The book, for anyone who hasn't read it, is about a highly religious mother, her son and the younger daughter. The novel opens with the son, a toddler, afflicted with a brain tumour from which he recovers, only just, and which leaves him with some brain damage:
    There's good news and bad news. It's shrunk. He's saved. He's not. He'll never be.
    But, of course, it returns.

    We saw the book as a classic Irish story about victims and suffering. It depicts the tensions involved in practising strict Catholicism, in trying to meet expectations, but all of it little tempered by love. It describes, one member said, faith practised without love.

    In this environment is the girl - loving her brother, loving her mother, but too often pushed aside by the mother's pain and focus on the son. As she hits puberty she is abused - raped - by an uncle and learns to use sex, first as power over others and later as punishment for herself. She is, we agreed, complicit in her own decline, letting it happen when she could have made - but with whose guidance? - other choices. Sex is her mechanism of self-harm, of replacing emotional pain. One member suggested that the only thing that can soothe a human being is another human being, but soothing human beings were in short supply in this book.

    We discussed the topsy-turvy nature of parental relationships in the book, in which children were expected to soothe the parent rather than vice-versa. In an early scene, the brother and sister tenderly place soup outside their mother's door after she'd physically abused them for not meeting their grandfather's religious expectations. (Who's fault was that, the reader asks!). One member felt that it was very likely that the mother had also been expected to soothe her father.

    The girl then is not the only "half-formed" thing in the book. We felt, in fact, that no-one in the book is fully-formed in the sense of being "mature" human beings in control of themselves. One member also wondered whether the sibling love could be seen as half-formed, unable to fully develop due to the tensions in the family and the restrictions caused by the boy's tumour and the repressive religious environment. 

    The mother does not come off well in the novel. She's more harsh than loving to her daughter - though there are moments of tenderness. She is not a good role model, evoking suffering rather than coping. However, many of us felt for the mother - abandoned by her husband who couldn't handle his son's situation: "I'd give my eyes to fix him but. The heart cannot be wrung and wrung". She deserved some sympathy. And, as one member said, the story is told through the daughter's eyes. We do not get the mother's perspective.

    So, the novel is painful to read - emotional, confronting, raw - but its language also makes it difficult to read. It is this that, primarily, defeated those who didn't finish it. McBride has said in interviews that she was inspired by James Joyce, which shows in the novel, though it's by no means a copy. The story is told first person through the daughter. It rarely follows the rules of grammar, nor of syntax. The language is fragmented - and becomes more so when the girl is distressed. There are new words, and old words used differently, and a lot of allusions, including to beautiful prayers (or novenas). Those who read it agreed that you had to go with the flow, not stop to try to understand every word. 

    There are rewards though for those who persevered. There is humour, such as some of the scenes at the grandfather's wake, and some gorgeous or pointed descriptions, such as this of the grandfather (again), "a right hook of a look in his eye all the time". A loving grandfather? Not so much! Not, that is, if you don't meet his strict expectations. No "forward rolls in a skirt" allowed! For one member, the beauty of the book is that this language contains the stress, the emotions. There's no mediating narratorial voice here - the feelings are right there in the language. Here she is, returning to college in the city, having seen the impact of the now-grown brother's brain damage:
    I make off from it. I make my escape. Leave you cough it up fight it out amongst yourselves. Get away from it oh god. And don't. No. Answer the calls. Fill my ear up. Fill my mouth instead. Man drink do what you like to me. I am safe. I am free. In my own way I am but it weighs me, beats me when I'm not doing the rounds. Split and splatter my heart head. So I get cold in the mouth on answering her bring bring. 
    So what, some asked, did we learn from the book? Well, there's the visceral understanding of the drive to self-harm, self-abuse, for one. There's also the beautiful tenderness in the sibling relationship.  And there's seeing a writer use language so differently and with such skill. All in all a powerful story, even if it's one that most wouldn't care to repeat!


    2 comments:

    1. When I said that it was the worst book I'd ever read, I regret now that I didn't explain what that meant to me, as it was probably relevant to the discussion of a book that probes really dark and painful places in human experience. I didn't mean that it isn't a very clever book in various ways as we discussed.

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      1. Well, I was keeping all comments anonymous! You did also make a point about "verbal impressionism" which shows your appreciation of some of its cleverness. But, you really didn't like it and that honesty is good to capture, don't you think?

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