The Irish novelist Eimear McBride’s debut A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is now being released in the US. It comes with a formidable backstory: after nine years of rejections, it was published by a tiny and new publishing house in England, and in the space of just a few months, started winning prize after prize. It has received near-unanimous praise from British reviewers, turning its author into something of a literary celebrity. This success is all the more surprising given the challenges Eimear McBride’s work presents to its readers. The novel’s nameless narrator describes a life emotionally terrorized by two separate traumatic ordeals: her older brother’s struggle with a brain tumor, which first develops when he is two years old, goes into remission, and then returns when he is in his early twenties; and her own sexual molestation at the hands of her uncle-in-law at age thirteen. She reports her experiences in a fragmented prose style brashly defiant of practically all grammatical and syntactical conventions. The novel opens (already famously): “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.”
Just in case the prospect of reading such a book does not inspire immediate enthusiasm, it is worth noting that A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is not actually very difficult to get through. After a few disorienting pages, we figure out how to decipher McBride’s idiosyncratic style, we learn to identify “I” with the female protagonist and “you” with her brother; we begin filling in the blanks created by the abrupt sentence breaks, and we discover, just beneath the prickly surface, a logical and chronologically ordered plot tracking the narrator’s growth from young girl to young adult in the fashion of a typical bildungsroman.
In many ways, McBride’s novel is less unconventional than it seems. In particular, its depiction of the narrator’s promiscuous sexual behavior, which begins shortly after she is raped by her uncle, subtly reaffirms a traditional Catholic ideal of female purity. But the linguistic experiments give the novel an appearance of radical iconoclasm, thus disguising its old-fashioned moralism.
Tracing McBride’s influences back to various heavy-hitting modernists, including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, critics so far have categorized her language as stream-of-conscious or pre-conscious, representing, in David Collar’s description, “the form of thought before it becomes articulate speech.” This is an apt characterization of certain passages. At times the narrative does seek to present itself as merely an emanation of the girl’s inchoate mental operations. In other moments, however, we encounter other rhetorical strategies. McBride is not, after all, trying to offer a perfectly accurate transcript of a girl’s thoughts; she’s trying to produce an aesthetically compelling work of literature. The opening, for instance, cannot possibly represent the protagonist’s sense of what is happening, since it covers the period before she was born. It bristles with lyrical energy because of the way it brings together a cacophony of different voices, shifting registers several times in just a few sentences, moving from the cryptically prophetic “in the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say,” to the whimsically reproachful “I’d say that’s what you did,” to the prayerful, “then lay you down,” and finally to the tense and terrified, “they cut you round. Wait and hour and day.” Later, when depicting a surprise visit from her severe and exacting grandfather, the narrator adopts a relatively lucid and grammatical style, as if to suggest the degree to which his presence dictates adherence to rules. “That man was sterner stuff than us. A right hook of a look in his eye all the time.” But when describing some of her sadomasochistic and self-shattering sexual encounters, her voice becomes disjointed and obscure. “Fling rubbish thrown I am am I I. Falt. Where until I crack.” In still other moments, the narrator appears slightly removed from the experiences she is reporting. About her uncle, she observes, “I am warming up the fire to think of him. Of my legs round him. Gloss and embellish. Gasped my name. Broke my heart. My longing longing. Not for him but I think so.” Though she uses the present tense, the person here telling the story seems wiser than the one experiencing the feelings, as if the narrator is watching herself from a distance and thus able to recognize her own delusions and misperceptions.
McBride also makes sure that we hear the voices of many other characters in the text. Although she never uses quotation marks, her keen ear for dialogue results in sentence fragments that frequently capture not so much the way the narrator thinks as the way the people around her talk, the way they fail to finish their own sentences. Her brother, wondering why she has managed to have a better life than his, despite her myriad sexual indiscretions, remarks, “You just have it so easy look at you. What? All the things you did but your life’s always so.” When the mother reports to the narrator a conversation she had with the doctors about the return of her son’s tumor, the two have the following exchange: “I said it was an old one but. I told them it’s not new. Mammy I. Because God you see. I would never survive. He wouldn’t ask that of. He wouldn’t ask me that.” Far from expressing the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, the language in these moments seems to signal its own inadequacy. Though readers can finish these sentences if they want to, the characters don’t bother, because they know that words will not suffice.
It is easy to forget that A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing offers up a variety of perspectives in part because the protagonist’s inner life is so ubiquitous and overpowering, and indeed some readers may find themselves wanting a few more opportunities to escape from it. Her mind tends to oscillate obsessively between two subjects: her brother’s cancer and her own sexuality. Her compulsion to draw connections between the two quickly signals to us that she is not all that well psychologically. In the wake of her rape by her uncle, she begins seeking out sexual encounters with strangers on a regular basis, and these continue, with only a few pauses, until the very end of the book. When she is a teenager, sex serves as a means of gaining popularity in school so she can avenge the ridicule her brother faces from his peers as a result of the mental and physical disabilities caused by his early bout of cancer. But it also serves to distance her from her family, giving her a way to leave home symbolically while her brother stagnates. At the same time, sex enables her to identify with her brother; it is a sign of something evil inside of her, like a tumor. She views it as a sin, one that might invite divine retribution, and allow her to take her brother’s place and assume his suffering. But she also frequently wonders whether the punishment for her promiscuity is her brother’s disease, and thus she blames herself for his illness. At times, she imagines that sex represents not only her crime, but also her punishment. It is for her always a joyless act, and in most cases a violent one. Near the end of the book, in fact, it becomes so violent that she seems to be seeking her own death, attempting to join her brother in an early grave.
However various and complex the connections the narrator draws between her sexuality and her brother’s cancer, the possible forms of experience that she can imagine for herself, after she reaches adolescence, are as a result of her dual preoccupations profoundly limited. Indeed there are only two, and each one comes bound up with a reductive moral category. She is either innocently caring for her brother, sharing his childlike interests, reverting to the pure and good girl that she once was, or she is sinfully and self-destructively engaging in dirty sexual acts devoid of love with strangers. These are the only options that she ever entertains. She occasionally confuses the two, when she has vaguely incestuous thoughts about her brother or when she regards her sexual acts as a form of martyrdom. But the narrator never finds a way to inhabit the everyday world that exists between these two extremes, the world of compromises, forgivable imperfections, and moral ambiguities. Her brother will never reach adulthood; but she can conceive of no realistic or healthy adult way of life for herself. A mature and functional sexual relationship is unthinkable. To have sex is to leave childhood behind is to relinquish one’s purity is to become evil is to deserve punishment is to die.
In this regard, the narrator is in perfect accord with her mother. Though her reckless promiscuity appears to represent a revolt against the latter’s fervent religiosity, it actually allows her to treat her own sexuality as essentially and invariably sinful, a consistent source of guilt and regret. Like her mother, she views her exploits as manifestly depraved and while her use of religious language is never devoid of sarcasm, she judges herself harshly. “Let sin to sinner return. Like me—for I know it very well.” She repeatedly resolves to stop sleeping around, and on several different occasions tries to purify herself through a quasi-baptismal ritual, submerging herself in a lake near her house. She complains bitterly about her mother’s compulsion to impose her religious views upon her brother, expressing relief when he sleeps through the local priest’s attempt to administer the sacrament. But she enlists her brother in another kind of religious narrative, turning him into a Christ-like vehicle for her own redemption. The cognitive regression he experiences when his tumor returns allows her to see him as the young boy she remembers, and it enables her to fantasize that by spending time with him she can reclaim her childhood and erase her sins. Watching him sleep, she thinks, “When we were we were we were young. When you were little and I was a girl. Once upon a time. I’ll mind you mind you. Now. Not then. And I genuflect your quiet bed. I kiss your face. Leave the room. I’m going. Sleeping. Just like you.”
The narrator’s attachment to simplistic moral categories is, of course, completely understandable. Her brother’s disease causes her to regard the prospect of a normal adult life with intense guilt: why should she get to escape their dysfunctional home when he cannot? Perhaps more importantly, her relationship with her uncle makes it impossible for her to view sex as anything other than sinful, dirty, and wrong. He first takes advantage of her when she is only thirteen, but several encounters follow in the years to come, and during all of them she feels complicit. A girl in such a position, particularly one raised in a devoutly Catholic home, would inevitably confront her own developing sexuality with terror, and thus yearn for some means of purification, some safe state of absolute innocence free from the moral stain that she believes she has brought upon herself.
In her introduction to George Egerton’s Wedlock, McBride calls female purity “that most holy and catastrophic of constructs.” But it is clear that the narrator remains, in her own perverse fashion, entirely committed to that construct. She is, as McBride points out in her interview with David Collard, “the product of a system that could offer nothing to women but sexual shame, ignorance and servitude.” A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing dramatizes the grave hazards that attend the narrator’s quest for purity, however sympathetically it renders her motives. In the final scene, when she sinks into a nearby lake to wash away her sins yet again, and to bring herself closer to her now deceased brother, it is unclear whether she will resurface: the purification rite suddenly appears suicidal. And yet, as we reach the ending, we may find ourselves asking whether McBride truly succeeds at critiquing the narrator’s moral sensibility. Is such a critique even possible, when the text seems to hew so closely to the protagonist’s own consciousness?
While McBride has described the ending of the book as a moment of transcendence and self-realization, the narrator’s final dip in the water seems more like a continuation of than an escape from her destructive pattern of behavior. Indeed, her efforts to purify herself and her efforts to defile herself are mutually reinforcing phases of the same pathological cycle. Despite McBride’s purported interest in challenging the narrator’s virgin-whore complex, the novel subtly enlists us as cheerleaders, making it impossible for us to do anything but applaud her attempts to recover her lost innocence. Given the two alternatives afforded by the narrative, what else can we do? If, in other words, it seems like the protagonist has only two options, one of which is to become inebriated and find some menacing sexual predator in a public bathroom or park, and have violent sex with him, thereby putting her own safety at risk, and the other is to go home and help her single mother care for her innocent dying brother, who among us would not root for the safer, more innocent option? Moreover, McBride does everything she can to make the sexual experiences awful—not just for the narrator, but for the reader. Her language is at its most bewildering and unreadable during these moments, and there are so many of them that they begin to feel interchangeable and thus, despite their gruesome character, monotonous. As a result, we find ourselves in the strange position of wishing for more focus on how the brother’s cancer is ravaging his mind and body–a subject far more pleasant (and emotionally satisfying) than the narrator’s grotesquely dysfunctional sex life.
McBride awkwardly forces the two activities that take up the narrator’s time in the latter half of the novel into polar opposites, aligning one with corruption and the other with purity, thus draining each of complexity or plausibility. Practically every minute she spends with her brother before he dies reinforces the idea that this is, for both characters, a retreat into childhood. When she sees him in the hospital he looks to her like he is “five again.” Sitting outside together, they watch some swans and geese, talk about how disgusting it would be to eat a slug, and then conjecture that doing so might give you the power to fly. Later, they look at clouds and imagine making a home up in the sky, like they did “when we were small.” They never have any adult conversations, never try to work out any of their differences, almost never discuss their anxieties about the future. Their relationship in fact fails to develop beyond the one they had as young children. The brother’s brain damage is responsible for his childlike behavior, but it also conveniently allows their time together to serve as an oasis of purity, an innocent refuge radically opposed to the corrupt world of sex and violence that the narrator enters whenever she leaves her brother’s side. Significantly, McBride mostly avoids depicting any significant post-childhood interactions between the two main characters even before the tumor returns. Starting at adolescence, they become distant and uncommunicative. Thus McBride ensures that their time together after his diagnosis is never anything other than a means of recalling their lost youth. Had McBride depicted a mature sibling relationship, it would have complicated the book’s binary moral vision. It would have hinted at a way of leaving childhood behind without automatically surrendering all of one’s virtue and all of one’s joy; it might have suggested a viable mode of adult experience not automatically identified with corruption and damnation.
The book’s narrator is not to blame for her skewed perspective; she is obviously the victim of an environment hostile to a young girl’s healthy psychological development, a central component of which is her criminally sleazy uncle-in-law. But the novel might have offered at least the suggestion of another point of view, so as to underscore the limitations of the narrator’s own. Starting with the opening, McBride does allow herself the freedom to move beyond the protagonist’s immediate thoughts and feelings, and she could have taken greater advantage of this freedom throughout the book. Despite her ear for voices, she never produces any reasonable or sympathetic counterpoint to the girl. Aside from her brother, all of the other characters, including the mother, are fairly reprehensible, and this is yet another means by which the novel give readers no choice but to align themselves with the protagonist’s stunted moral vision.
By the end, the polarity between the narrator’s two modes of life becomes increasingly extreme. Her brother regresses to an infantile state and her sexual encounters become a pure nightmare. When she returns the day after her brother dies to the same park where she had just a couple weeks earlier allowed herself to be the victim of a brutal sexual encounter with a drunken vagrant, we may feel like the viewers of a bad horror movie, wanting to shout at the hapless heroine: don’t go in there! And when she returns home, heavily bruised and battered from the life-threatening sexual assault that she does in fact receive in the park, only to be raped one last time by her uncle as she is trying to clean off the blood, she suddenly seems to be trapped in a novel by the Marquis de Sade. Though these scenes are shocking, they also border on the absurd; one feels perhaps that McBride is trying to pack too much into one twenty-four hour period in order to lend dramatic form to the narrator’s guilty conscience. And while the novel, near the end, invites comparison to the Gothic or the Sadean, the last scene, in which the girl either drowns herself or comes close to doing so, also places it squarely within another somewhat more canonical tradition. That is to say, the narrator represents yet another addition to the long list of female characters, including Hetty Sorel, Edna Pontellier, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, who must be punished for their sexual transgressions.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing may go over quite well with American readers. They have a long history, after all, of cherishing novels about characters in search of some undiscovered Eden where they can reclaim their lost innocence. And if McBride does become a phenomenon in the United States, as she has already in Europe, it would in fact be a good thing. In spite of all the criticisms that might be levied against A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, the jarring poetry of the narrator’s voice is undeniable. For her ability to escape what has become, among a majority of contemporary writers, a stifling attachment to polished form and elegant syntax, Eimear McBride deserves to be applauded. It will be intriguing to see what she does with that ability once she moves beyond the rage for purity that leads the protagonist of her debut novel to ruin.
Timothy Aubry is Associate Professor of English and Associate Chair of the English Department at Baruch College. He is the author of Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans. His essays and reviews have been published in PMLA, n+1, The Point, Paper Monument, and The Millions, and a recent piece will be featured in Best American Essays 2014.