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Challenging, Shattering 'Girl' Is No Half-Formed Thing

Be prepared to be blown away by this raw, visceral, brutally intense neomodernist first novel. There's nothing easy about Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, from its fractured language to its shattering story of the young unnamed narrator's attempt to drown mental anguish with physical pain.

McBride takes on classic Irish literary themes — a harsh, unforgiving religion, damaged families, the dying and the dead, transgressive sex — and gives them a gritty new spin, in language that manages to convey pre-verbal experience. While McBride's girl may be a half-formed thing, there's nothing half-formed about even her most fragmented sentences.

McBride wrote A Girl is a Half-formed Thing 10 years ago, when she was 27. It took her nearly a decade to find a publisher and a fairy tale ending: Her book recently won both the Goldsmiths and the Baileys Women's prizes. Her American publisher writes, "Don't be cowed by the first few pages of this novel. Think about how glad you were that you read past the beginning of The Sound and the Fury, or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." The references to William Faulkner and James Joyce aren't outlandish; McBride's work also evokes Samuel Beckett and Edna O'Brien.

Simply put, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is the long cri de coeur of a young girl growing up with a punitively religious mother and a learning-disabled brother who survived childhood brain cancer only to succumb to the disease, agonizingly, in his 20s. The "you" she addresses throughout is her beloved brother, at times a source of guilt because of her impatience with his disabilities and her failure to defend him against school bullies — but ultimately the one bright spot in her dark, dark world.

Just when she's experiencing the first stirrings of sexual desire at 13 — "Wave and wave of it hormone over. Like hot flush cold splash down my neck." — the girl is raped by her uncle. She comes to associate sex with masochistic debasement and defilement, seeking increasingly dangerous, violent encounters with both her uncle and strangers to obliterate her anguish: "I want that. Hurt me. Until I am outside pain," she says. Interestingly, McBride's portrait of the uncle — by turns abusive, contrite and even tender — is more nuanced than her scathing depiction of the mother's unyielding religion.

The narrator has "bile thoughts" about her aunt and uncle, and openly criticizes her mother's prayer group. Mammy scolds, "Don't you be cheeky. I know you look down on me but I'll not have irreverence from. You especially." The girl seeks escape through books and school, but that isn't enough: "We don't know the world but want and want and on the very tip of tongue I'd fly away if I could."

There's nary a comma in sight, but periods dot these lyrical pages as richly as chocolate chips: "Thinking I think of you and me. Our empty spaces where fathers should be. Whenabouts we might find them and what we'd do to fill them up."

She tries repeatedly to start afresh, but even after making it to an unspecified city for college, she's still losing herself through self-effacing sex: "I met a man who hit me a smack. I met a man who cracked my arm. I met a man who said what are you doing out so late at night. I met a man. I met a man ... And I lay down. And slapped and cried and wined and dined." She thinks, "What if. I could. I could make. A whole other world a whole civilization in this this city that is not home? The heresy of it. But I can. And I can choose this. Shafts of sun. Life that is this. And I can. Laugh at it because the world goes on. And no one cares. And no one's falling into hell. I can do. Puke the whole lot up."

As the violence escalates, both the girl's body and her language are traumatized, shattering into smaller and smaller shards: "Puk blodd over me frum. In the next but. Let me air."

Sound bleak? Well, it isn't cheerful, and the graphic sexual violence and challenging anti-grammar surely aren't for everyone. But McBride's writing is so alive with internal rhymes, snippets of overheard conversation, prayers and unfiltered emotion, and her narrator so feisty, that readers can't help but be pulled into the vortex of this devastating, ferociously original debut.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.