Eimear McBride’s debut ‘A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing’ could be a familiar encounter; an Irish writer experimenting with language in the modernist tradition of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, the story conveyed in fragments through the unnamed ‘I’ of the narrator’s stream of consciousness. The familiar archetypes of inter-generational misery are there; sexually abusive uncle, abandoned mother, violent patriarch. And then there’s the nightmarish portrait of Ireland with its dry spuds and the tyranny of spiritual orthodoxy.
The fact that McBride spent nine years struggling to get the work into print suggests that some publishers may have found it too derivative, or perhaps some found it too challenging with its broken syntax. But this painful portrait of a young woman’s life blighted by her brother’s brain tumour does something alchemical that distinguishes it from the obvious genealogies of Irish modernist writing.
For the prose implicitly conveys rather than explicitly narrates the salient details of the story and does so in sensory terms; through descriptions of smells and touch, through articulations of pain both mental and physical. In this way the language oscillates between inside and outside, from the internal voice of the narrator and the wounded brain of her brother versus the abuse meted out to them by the outside world that calls them ‘useless’, ‘spastic’ , ‘slut’.
The fragmented syntax is both torturously acute and evasively opaque in describing events and sensations. This book will be remembered because it exemplifies how the language of ourselves and others defines and undoes us, but moreover how it ultimately fails to make sense of the bleak horror of pain.