Nicer is not what I am after


Dear Eimear,

I was deeply moved by your first novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Abandoned by her father, stifled by the conservatism of the small rural community where she was born, raped by her uncle at age 13, and deeply disturbed by the brain tumor of her older brother, the “half-formed girl” who is the protagonist of this novel simply grabs us  with her fractured language. This unnamed girl tells us, in dismantled phrases, but with simple words, a history of progressive degradation.

a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing-9781476789033_hrThe first pages are narrated from the perspective of a fetus: the “unnamed girl”, “half-formed”. She tells us, from the point of view of someone not yet born, a scene that had passed between her brother, then two years old, and her mother. The boy has a brain tumor and will undergo a surgery that will leave him with mental and physical consequences. In the aforementioned scene, the mother, in order to comfort the child, promises that he can choose the name of the girl who is about to be born, and that is our narrator-protagonist.

The girl goes on to report, in an incessant (and caustic) stream of consciousness, a period of about twenty years in the life of her Catholic family. The story takes place during the 80s and ends in the early 90s. The protagonist is an Irish girl who grows subjected to an overbearing mother, within a very religious family, in the Irish countryside. The family is composed of the two children and the mother, who had been abandoned by her husband when she was still pregnant with the protagonist. There is still an uncle and a grandfather. None of the main characters is named.

Our narrator is a smart and transgressive girl who, against her mother’s wishes, moved to London in order to attend University. The precarious freedom that the girl weaves for herself  is marked by sexual encounters with anonymous, abuse, violence and alcohol. Only through self-inflicted physical pain, and only voluntarily turning herself into an object of another man’s desire ( turning herself into a half-formed thing), our protagonist feels really free. In some excerpts, we read echoes of authors such as Marguerite Duras and Catherine Millet, who also wrote in such a raw way. The gradual degradation of the narrator’s life takes place in parallel to the escalating violence of the plot and of the words used: both body and language break up at the end, at ever smaller pieces: “blodd Puk over frum me. But in the next. Let me air.”

While certainly experimental in writing, your book does not evade the inevitable comparisons, for example, with Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. However, the originality of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing lies in the very personal way with which the author tries to rape the writing (and the reader). The style is direct, free of intertextual tricks. The sentences are short, fragmented, closer to poetry than prose. The verbal forms are distorted, some prepositions are abandoned – as if the author sought something very close to the pre-linguistic experience, unmediated by thought. At the end of the book, the scenes and words collapse, in layers. The reader follows the events with the same immediacy with which the narrator experiences her life.

Fragmented sentences reflect the narrator’s internal turmoil –  and, in doing so, they intensify the brutality of some scenes. The language vacillates between grammatical accuracy, oral record and musicality without commitment to rule or direction. Plot, sometimes, is just a blur on the page. You reduce the sentences to the minimum necessary for the reader to be pushed to the bottom of what the narrator feels and fears. The text is almost devoid of commas or speech marks; within paragraphs, we find interspersed onomatopoeia, bits of dialogue, some internal rhymes, alliteration and half verses that run sometimes as crackles in the page: “The right hook of the look in his eye all the time” .

Some words have their letters reversed for sound effect; expressions are repeated, with variations of tone and direction; colloquial language is intertwined to sounds and memories, with special attention to the rhythm of speech. The story is narrated in incomplete sentences and fragments of thoughts, scattered on the page, in which we inevitably stumble. The effect is sometimes exhausting. But this is not such a radical reading of Ulysses as Joyce; your writing, although challenging, has a larger, simpler, more transparent vivacity; is less cerebral and less polished; has more musicality and is more aggressive. You rip your words to the bone, subverts the rules of the English language, and comes very close to the limit point where this subversion would stop any attempt of understanding. You do that not as part of an exercise in style, but in order to convey, more immediately, the lived experience.

If your writing  is almost a heresy against the English grammar, the language used is conversational and direct, and the structure of the plot is quite simple and straightforward: we follow, chronologically, the childhood and early adulthood of the narrator. As the girl grows, the language takes shape; complete sentences are more frequent, and whole dialogues reveal themselves embedded in paragraphs. The events are not exactly described, but only evoked. In syncopated rhythm, with tenderness and anger, this “half-formed girl” gives us her cri de coeur. She is much better, however, in the role of feeling and listening, than in telling us what is happening. In her fragmented narration, the girl repeats over and over the pronoun you: she refers to her brother, in a kind of internal dialogue, but we feel that she also speaks –  sometimes anguished sometimes violently – to us, her readers. You, you, yes you. The girl’s affection for her brother seems to be the only safe place in the muddy terrain of this novel. “In burrows rabbits safe from rain … You and me only.” This book is soaked in rain, tears and guilt.

Language is, in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, sometimes, just a form of aggression. I went through the book with the same uncomfortable feeling that reading The Sound and the Fury caused me: the feeling of going through a thick wall of fog. However, through its fractured writing, The Girl is a Half-formed Thing, such as the work of Faulkner, creates an unusually raw and more tangible reality than grammar or a more traditional diction would be able to convey. Although compared to poetic prose, the writing style seeks no sublimation of pain: its focus is the catharsis. We feel the constant verge of disaster. The plot seems to happen “live”: we are in the middle of the hurricane, as confused as our narrator, who responds to the facts unmediated. Her reactions (as her sentences) reach us half-formed, and are provisional and contradictory.

If it is undeniable that you appropriate classical themes of Irish literature (sexual abuse, internal conflict against conservatism), you do it with a grain of salt. The story of your “half-formed girl”, told with the syntax folding and choppy rhythm of a beating heart, it’s terrible, beautiful, difficult to read. It comes very close to the point where the language is just an open fracture, hot, dirty, bleeding.

Yours truly,


Egon Schiele. "Schwarzhaariger Mädchenakt". 1910.
Egon Schiele. “Schwarzhaariger Mädchenakt”. 1910.

“I want that. Hurt me. Until I am outside pain (…)”

— Eimear McBride, The Girl is a Half-formed Thing

“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.”

— Eimear McBride. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

“And they clapped they loved they worshipped him. I picked up sticks out of my hair. Dirt up off my tongue. I felt the loving smears go in. The loving blood. I felt water rushing in my brain. I dead the heart. I am for you alone.”

— Eimear McBride, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

“Crumbs on the carpets and insects bite my back I don’t care for. Nicer is not what I am after. Fuck me softly fuck me quick is all the same once done to me. And washing in their rusted baths and flushing brown with limescale loos amid the digs of four a.m. before I put my knickers on.”

— Eimear McBride. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

“The black I swim filled with light and things and clouds that were the sky. The coldest water. Deepest mirror of the past and in it I am. Drowned no fine…And we are very clean here like when we wash our hands. When we’re in the rain. I was. His fingers in my mouth my eyes my hair. Stop. You break the surface. Gasp. Air is. That’s what air is again.”

— Eimear McBride. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

“But if you are not uncomfortable as a writer, then you are not doing your job. Your job is not to feel great about everything. Your job is to look at what is difficult and to try and understand it in some small way.”

— Eimear McBride. The Guardian, 5 June 2014.

“To be a woman is a very fearless thing these days.”

— Eimear McBride

About the book

  • MCBRIDE, Eimear. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Faber & Faber, 2014. 203 p.
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 5 stars


One thought on “Nicer is not what I am after

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