Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

FABER & FABER, 2014/2013

Eimear McBride’s award-winning debut novel tells the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, it is a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world first hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it is always a revelation.

“Eimear McBride is that old-fashioned thing, a genius … The adventurous reader will find that they have a real book on their hands, a live one, a book that is not like any other.” –Anne Enright, Guardian

Last year’s winner of Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (beating Donna Tartt’s award-winning The Goldfinch), A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a touching and notoriously difficult read. For such a short book, McBride manages to pack a punch that hits you straight into the heart and will make you plough through the book hoping that somewhere in the distance things will be alright. It is a very dark and harrowing read, but as the blurb mentioned, it does also have it’s funnier moments.

The story of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing follows the life of a young woman growing up in a very religious family in Ireland. The protagonist’s childhood is clouded by his brother’s brain tumour as well as the family violence that stems from previous generations. The story is told from the perspective of our protagonist, but, like thoughts, it flits from memories to present day and onto dreams; it’s slightly similar to Woolf’s stream of consciousness – although less calming and fluid. Through her eyes, you get to experience the first instance of her brother’s illness, the strained relationship between her mother and her charismatic grandfather, the pressures to keep her family secrets hidden as well as the alienation from her family. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a story of rebellion and assimilation, of sickness, ignorance and abuse – and the vulnerability of a young mind. I warn you now: it can be brutal.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is one of the hardest books I’ve read this year and that is not only because of the writing style. In fact, the writing style is very beautiful – almost like prose poetry – so it’s best to take your time with it and feel the words. When I began writing this review I first berated myself for being so bad with names, but flipping through the pages of the book I soon realised that the characters are nameless. The book is almost devoid of names, distinct places, or other things that should help you to pin the story to a specific time and place. The characters are only referred to through family relationship – such as ‘my uncle’ or ‘Mammy’ – but still I developed a distinct sense of each character. I guess because of the vagueness I struggled in the beginning in identifying the narrator, but as she grew older also the style of the narration became more refined and got easier to follow.

The honesty and realness with which the story approaches some of its topics is shocking and occasionally made me want to stop reading. Although the main character’s obsessive approach to purity and the “to the bone” feeling of worthlessness were painful to read about, but I persisted because A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is an important book. I can understand why McBride might have had some difficulties getting her debut novel published (9 years of queries!), but I’m so glad that Galley Beggar Press took the plunge. Like Enright mentioned in her review in Guardian, McBride’s style can be uncompromising, so you really have to invest your time and energy to it. However, what waits on the other side is an intimate insight to a very different mind.

I feel that I cannot express with words how much A Girl is a Half-formed Thing shook me, but it definitely was an eye-opening experience. The Baileys winner is not a book for everyone, but if you think you can handle the subject matter and want to immerse yourself in McBride’s writing, then you need to pick this one up.


On the beach. On the stones. On the water splash. I’ll hear it go right through me. Now see. Because he’s going away. I knew sure. I knew that. But still. The ocean comes. I’ll put my hands in. I’ll baptise. I like again. That cold running round my knuckles. Catch it just a bit. Don’t you start. And don’t let the ice in. Don’t you dare start now. A stupid fucked-up thing. Walk and walk it. Go on over the rocks. Put the air in young lungs. The fright out. You didn’t want. Took it. But. But but. It’s nothing now. Forget all that was nothing at all.

6 thoughts on “Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

    • Agreed! I read an interview in which Eimear McBride was calling out publishers to give out more demanding and challenging books, and not just dumb it down for the readers. Of course there is something to be said about being too clever and playing style over substance, but I think we also need authors who can shake up the literature scene.

      • Definitely! There’s got to be the substance to the writing otherwise it defeats itself. McBride took it to loads of publishers before a small press took the plunge, didn’t she? There seems to be a reluctance to publish books perceived as ‘non-commercial’ but her success shows there’s definitely an appetite for difference with readers.

        • I know! I’ve heard that especially for debut authors, who haven’t yet made a new for themselves, it’s super hard to get published if the style is seen as ‘non-commercial’. Hopefully the success of McBride will encourage also some bigger publishers to also look at the less traditional manuscripts.

  1. I read this last year. I’d agree it’s not for everyone and definitely not one to read when your tired. I can’t say I enjoyed it. There is no doubt that it’s a work of literary genius and they’ll be teaching it on English courses for years due to the style but the story just didn’t do it for me. I reckon it’s a marmite book. You’ll either love it or hate it.

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