Book review - A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

There has been a lot of hype about this book.

I didn’t even know you could still advertise books on the sides of London buses, but apparently you can. ‘Read it and be changed.’ Eleanor Catton, author of the similarly hyped The Luminaries, told me. ‘Okay, I will,’ I said…

…once I’ve finished reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which, by the way, changed my life forever. It was as serious and all-encompassing and as ambitious and gut-wrenching as any instant classic is, plus with added feminist badassery, lines that I found written on the insides of my eyelids as I went to sleep at night, characters that had me pounding at the pages when it was over - Anna, Ella, Tommy, I love you! Don’t go!

So, on picking up A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, I was still heartbroken, and reluctant to take up a new lover.

And it was tough. This is certainly not a book for the faint-hearted or those not familiar with more unusual literary techniques. I would say I only got about halfway into this book, semi-coherently piecing together the fractured thoughts and plot lines from the jarring prose, before I realised what McBride was doing. Through this unusual form, I found myself knowing things about this character that I couldn’t know, remembering things that even she couldn’t remember. I realised: this is a serious book. This means business. Doris Lessing would be impressed.

Paragraphs are punctured constantly by full stops. But these marks move from the familiar territory of punctuation to something way more interesting. The logical pathways of thoughts hurdle these points, cutting into the sense and tipping the reader constantly into new ravines and down levels of semiotics. I was reading a section at an overground station and had to stop to get on the train when it arrived. I realised, in fact, that my own thoughts, if drawn on a page, would be jumping and cracking in this way, always stopping and starting, changing direction, linking and detaching. I looked around at the other people around me, crammed into a metal box, eyes twitching and chests tight with impatience, and was sure that they’d all agree.

I found it particularly poignant that one of the very few moments in the book when the prose was completely correct in a traditional, grammatical sense was when the protagonist was repeating a catholic prayer or song in their mind.

These fragments of verse, familiar song lyrics that flick off the back of our tongues like a tick, nursery rhymes and quotations that we chant to ourselves, mantras, are often the fleeting mimicry of calm that occur in our minds. How refreshing to read a book that is made almost entirely of an attempt at a true reflection of the other stuff in our heads, the real stuff.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, for me, was not an enjoyable book. It made a point, and it made it well. But I think I’ll be taking a more straightforward, easy-going lover under my duvet next.