A Girl is a Half Formed Thing

One of the things I love most about a good holiday is the unadulterated reading time. If it is expected of you to sit by a pool for hours at a time, you might as well make the most of it and devour some great literature as you do so.

In the last week while I was away (on Skiathos, which is a beautiful Greek island) I read four books. I like to mix up literary with lighter when I’m away, to keep my brain on an even keel, and I started the week off with ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride.

This book came highly acclaimed. Not only did it win the 2013 Goldsmith Prize and the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, it was also personally recommended to me and, as the cherry on top, it’s a set text for one of my MA modules. Reading this book has been a long time coming and finally, I could procrastinate no more.

It perhaps wasn’t the best choice to begin my holiday with. Everything about this book is a challenge. The structure and style are completely atypical, as the first person narration mirrors the age of the main character all the way from being a tiny baby to a twenty-something. Throughout the novel, you are dealing with incomplete sentences, only the bare essentials of grammar and no demarcation of speech whatsoever. Throw in some pretty grisly and gritty subject matter and you’re in for a tricky read.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’ve just touched down on holiday, it’s not exactly ideal.

A standard 200-page book usually takes me three or four hours to read. This took me three days. I’m a self-professed skimmer, but if you try to skim ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ you will not understand what is going on. At all. Seriously. You have to read every single word, and I think that was a very intentional decision on McBride’s part.

Aside from the brutal subject matter, the structure and style make ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ a visceral reading experience. It’s quite clear that McBride wants her readers to be utterly immersed, to feel everything that the narrator is feeling (including confusion) and by taking such an unusual approach, she has given the reader no choice. You have to take in every tiny detail, you have to be inside the narrator’s head, you have to take what she is taking.

I can see why this novel has won awards. I can see why it’s a set text for a module examining 21st Century Storytelling. I can see all of the merits. But I can’t say I’d recommend it. ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ is fascinating and it is a triumphal achievement on Eimear McBride’s behalf – there is no second-guessing that woman’s talent. But it also feels like an academic experiment. It’s the kind of text I could pick apart and examine in minute detail, but I’m not itching to read it again and I haven’t passed it on to anyone else to read.

This is quite a rare experience for me. Generally I’m quite black and white when it comes to books – I either love them or I have good reasons why I don’t. But this novel is a conundrum. It’s clever, it’s bold but it didn’t elicit very much from me. I was relieved to finish it so that I could go on to something else. Maybe it was the wrong time, maybe I’ll read it again for my studies and suddenly find that I’m intoxicated. But for now, my reaction is a half formed thing.