RAD Book Club review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

15 Dec 2016

This week, we read A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, the multi-award winning first novel by Eimear McBride.

The novel tells the story of the childhood and adolescence of a girl in Ireland whose brother has a terminal brain tumour.

One of the most striking things about the novel is its prose style – which is written as a stream of consciousness. It was the first thing we discussed because most of the group found the beginning of the novel, with its fragmented sentences, quite difficult to read and needed to devote a lot of time to fully engaging with it. Those that persevered found that the prose became easier to read as the novel progressed and the narrator aged. We felt that although it was time-consuming to read, the stream of consciousness style suited the novel’s intense and intimate insight into the interior life of a troubled young woman.

We also considered what the title might mean – whether the narrator in the novel is half-formed because she is damaged by the things that happen to her and her emotional growth stunted by others’ opinions of her. Perhaps is it a more literal reference to a girl being half-formed compared to a woman, although referring to a female as a ‘thing’ led some members to believe it points to her being half-formed compared to a male.

The novel covers roughly the first twenty years of the girl’s life, so never moves beyond her childhood and young adulthood. She grows up in a very religious household, and the writer is unsparing in her depiction of the extremes to which belief systems can drive people. The spectres of sin and penance hang over the novel and the narrator struggles against the boundaries set by her mother, which are made stronger by her mother’s belief that her children are wicked and need to be tamed by an upbringing devoted to God.

A lot of the narrator’s story relates her fraught and mostly dysfunctional relationships with other people, particularly her family. The other characters in the book, such as her mother, had very strong opinions of the narrator and we felt that sometimes these overshadowed her sense of her identity and her ability to look after herself. We felt that her perspective of herself reflected the opinions of the other characters and drove her into violent and exploitative situations, which were difficult for the reader to bear at times.

The subject matter, as well as the style, is challenging and frequently upsetting, and became more so towards the end of the book. Despite that, we felt on the whole that the book was well-written and worth reading because of the ability of the powerful, poetic and finely-wrought prose to inspire empathy in the reader.