Rape, incest, terminal cancer and death by suicide are things you don’t often find all together in the same novel. As many teachers of creative writing are aware, this sort of excess can lead a writer to disaster, especially when coupled with an experimental and difficult style that is emphatically not, as one shrewd critic has put it, ‘a beach read’. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is, rather, a piece of high modernism a century on, recognisable in its stream-of-consciousness ways as using a version of the techniques practised by James Joyce, and also by Virginia Woolf, who might have approved its style but would have hated its subject matter. The fact that these things combine to make a remarkable and riveting novel rather than a train wreck is a measure of Eimear McBride’s imagination and skill, especially when you take into account that she wrote it in six months at the age of 27.
The voice of the book is the voice of the Girl – we never learn her name, and there is some complex significance and poignancy in that – who is born into a family already riven with misfortune and grief. Her older brother has had brain surgery in his early childhood (‘It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees’) and her father abandons the family before she is even born (‘He left her with a fifty pound note. Take care!’). The children are brought up in rural Ireland (‘Cold and wet with slugs going across the carpet every night’) by their harsh and pious mother (‘I’ll give you something to cry about. Making a holy show with that big lip. Stop your gurning’). The Girl is close to and protective of her brother, whose brain has been damaged by the cancer and the surgery (‘At school why do you talk like that? … It’s in your sums X and red lines through a copy book for no no no. Wrong, the teachers writing, I explained all this to you’).
Increasingly resistant to her mother’s Catholic catchwords and scolding ways – whatever else her mother might be, she is still full of a kind of bitter energy and vitality – the Girl is the recipient of hand-me-downs from her well-off aunt (‘And second-hand knickers with butterflies for me. Second-arsed. Amn’t I the lucky one.’) Shortly after this she is raped by her uncle (‘Went about me tooth and claw that I wanted. Felt within the time has come. No Christ here on the kitchen floor. Against the back of the kitchen chair.’) This may or may not be technically incest – he is her mother’s sister’s husband – but in spite of her conflicted sexual response it is certainly rape, for she is only thirteen, which makes it paedophilia as well.
You would hope for the Girl’s sake that the protracted awfulness of her life might stop there, but it does not; in the wake of the initial encounter with her uncle, she becomes the girl at school with the lifted skirts behind the sheds (‘Now I had two or three behind the prefabs. Consecutive days mind’) and then the girl at university who uses sex in a way she scarcely understands herself, but which seems an oddly joyless and violent compulsion reminiscent of nothing so much as the self-harmers who cut themselves as a form of release from unbearable emotional stress. (‘Does that hurt? Yes. A lot. A lot and relieves me for a while.’) She also uses her sexuality as mode of self-definition and autonomy – ‘Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers’ – but not in some antiseptic psychobabble way: ‘Nicer is not what I am after.’
And in the background, like some ominous soprano continuo in a minor key, is the angry Catholic virtue of her virago mother, expressed in speech rhythms that catch with uncanny accuracy the way that people actually talk:
Don’t you turn your back on me. What do you mean? Nothing Mammy. I’ve had enough do you hear me? Enough of you. Your face. You’re a state. Making a show of yourself on today of all days … Go out of the room. Get out of my sight she says.
And then, when the siblings have become young adults, her brother’s cancer returns.
This combination of extravagant talent, extreme subject matter, emotional intensity, and a radical and difficult style has led McBride to be generally regarded, since the publication of her novel, as the literary love child of two writers she is eager to acknowledge as influences: James Joyce and Edna O’Brien. McBride is very conscious of her identity as a female Irish writer and is philosophical about not being able to get away from it:
You know, being Irish, oh God, sex, death, religion, shame, here it all is … I thought I really don’t want to write this book but, you know, it’s a bit like asking English male writers not to write about the war. It’s just there and it’s going to come out at some point.
In almost every interview and profile featuring McBride since her novel was shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the style and its Irish-atavistic origins have been central to the discussion: Joyce is repeatedly cited by reviewers as a major influence, and perhaps more importantly is mentioned by McBride herself as the jumping-off point for her own writing. Asked in an interview ‘What was the starting point of this novel for you?’ she replied:
The starting point was the quote from James Joyce: ‘One great part of human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.’ After happening on that, I realised where I wanted my work to go … Joyce was the main influence on the style. Not so much that I was trying to emulate his, rather, in seeing what he had achieved, I realised that – with a little thought – the English language is capable of far more than it’s usually given credit for.
Quarter of a century ago, when a young woman I know was still a baby in the early stages of learning to talk, the circus came to town. It set up camp, as circuses always do when they come to Adelaide, in the West Parklands. Every morning, passing the place where the elephants were tethered, the baby would listen to her mother singing at the wheel: ‘Hay-dee, hay-dee ho, the great big elephant is so slow! Hay-dee, hay-dee ho …’ But one day the circus packed up and moved on, as circuses will, and the next morning there was nothing to be seen from the car but a lot of squashed yellow grass and empty space. The baby, who had quite a large vocabulary but had never yet been heard to move beyond one-word pronouncements, looked at the abandoned ground and electrified her mother with her first-ever attempt at a sentence, prompted and saturated by loss. ‘Gone haydees,’ she said, mournfully.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is full of gone haydees: fragments of language struggling towards reason in the teeth of strong emotion or sensation, unformed by grammar as we know it, but still somehow establishing a direct line, with no interference, to the reader’s heart. Or, sometimes, a sucker punch to the gut:
… and sticks his fingers in my mouth. Piull my mth he pull m mouth with him fingers pull the side of my mouth til I no. Stop that fuck and rip.
By the time she gets to this point the Girl is a young woman, a long way now from the mouths of babes; but the directness of feeling is still the same, and so is the unexpected, visceral clarity. When she says to her brother ‘You white-faced feel the needle go in. Feel fat juicy poison poison young boy skin’, we don’t need grammar to understand.
At least one critic has complained that the Girl’s language is still as fragmented in her teens as it is when she is very small, but that is missing the point. While this sort of style has a lot in common with the unmediated and still ungrammatical utterances of small children, and while the language-acquisition theories of Noam Chomsky on the one hand and Jacques Lacan on the other have much to offer to a reading of this book, it is ‘pre-linguistic’ more in the sense that what is written down represents the immediate experience of Joyce’s ‘state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language’. One of the functions of grammatical language is to impose order on chaos, to process and contain sensation and emotion before they can derail or overwhelm us. McBride takes the reader back, in this process, to the moment of the half-formed sentence, where language is still trying, and often failing, to wrestle sensation and emotion to the deck. The Girl’s language is at its most broken up when violence, sex, grief or dreams are having their way with her. She is what Julia Kristeva calls a ‘deject’; those familiar with Kristeva’s theories of abjection will recognise her at once:
There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant inside or outside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.
While the Girl is still a child, the style of her storytelling suggests to the reader a kind of filtering of bewilderment. It is the record of experiences that don’t yet make sense to her. When she is raped by her uncle, she is bewildered not only by his behaviour but also by her own conflicting and conflicted sexual responses, saturated with the language of her religious mother:
I am sweating here. Ready to give and not. Not at all ready for what I think I’ll get. But I’ll give it. I’ll give it. Take this cup. I’ll drink I’ll not. Thy will be done. Let him kiss me. If he wants. I. Brink it.
This writing could be (and has been) characterised as stream-of-consciousness, but a lot of it feels more like stream of semi-consciousness, or sub-, or un-. To get into the act of reading it, you have to yield yourself up to the current in its dark underground stream of language, a rhythmic mutter in extremis from the depths of the body, and answer silently in the same language. This may be easier for female readers than male ones, since even a reader like me, whose formative years were happy, uneventful, non-religious and uncle-free, will recognise at once the horrors and the recklessness of being an adolescent girl who cannot or will not explain. Book word girl-self I read. Yes mummy no mum. Where is she what’s she doing she’s only reading. Eye roll. Family I don’t no. Boys men. Know that confuse know that hard look sideways. Know that hard hard lesson oh yes I yes. Words not do.
I couldn’t say how a man would read it, except that I think he would read it differently, and from further away.
On May 4, delivering the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Festival, Colm Tóibín discussed the fraught relationship between Irish literature and Irish nationalism in the early years of the twentieth century, citing the riots that broke out in 1907 at a performance in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. The riots, he says,
continued for a week. They broke out because members of the audience were shocked at the way in which Irish women were presented on the stage as earthy and sexually alive, in which there was no effort made to idealize the Irish peasantry … In order to create the conditions for Irish nationalism to thrive, the image of the Irish peasant would have to be cleansed, idealized. Irish women would have to seem more pure, more fully Victorian than their English counterparts. The play was a disruption of this project by a brilliant imagination.
The free expression of women’s sexuality was seen, as is so often the case, as a threat on a national scale. But Synge’s Pegeen and Widow Quin ushered in some of Irish literature’s greatest twentieth century characters: Joyce’s Molly Bloom with her yes I said yes; Kate and Baba from Edna O’Brien’s banned The Country Girls (1960); Roddy Doyle’s noisy, funny, bashed-up alcoholic Paula Spencer from The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (1996):
And I felt the sweat when I saw Charlo. This wasn’t a crush – this wasn’t David Cassidy or David Essex over there – it was sex. I wanted to go over there and bite him.
This is the tradition, or one of the traditions, to which McBride’s Girl belongs: she is located, like them, within the wider context of the way that Ireland sees and defines itself, and like them she cracks that mirror from side to side.
And like so many characters from Irish literature (and, presumably, life), she lurches wildly back and forth between the forms and ideals and language of the Catholic Church and the chaos of her own defiant behaviour, to which she occasionally refers as sin in a way that makes it impossible to tell whether she is being ironic or not. In one quite beautiful but slightly sinister scene, during her aunt and uncle’s first visit to the family home, when an unambiguous but cut-short encounter with her uncle has piqued her curiosity and her troubling (indeed, half-formed) desire, she goes for an early morning walk and finds herself wading into the lake and floating:
I sink baptise me now oh lord and take this bloody itch away for what am I the wrong and wrong of it always always far from thee. Ha.
Less than an hour later, she is on the kitchen floor with her uncle: ‘I want. And this is what it’s like after all. After all I’ve heard. It hurts me.’ The pre-rape dip is something to which she refers, while it is happening, as a baptism, but the question is, baptised into what? This scene at the lake, as it turns out, is one we need to bear in mind for future reference; the end, when it comes, is less of a surprise than it might otherwise have been.
It would be facile in the extreme to ‘explain’ this character by saying that it’s all about the absent father, but the Girl is certainly haunted by him and that ghost plays its part in the trajectory of her life. At thirteen, not long before the arrival of her uncle, she thinks:
Where’s that father? Mine? Who belonged to was part of me? Imagination of fathers sitting by me on the bed. Stroking my hair you’re my girl, belong to me pet. I have heard of seen those things somewhere on the telly.
And from this point to the end of the book, as I read, a line of poetry kept recurring to me, the saddest line that Sylvia Plath ever wrote. ‘Starless and fatherless, a dark water.’
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Columbia University Press, 1982).
Sylvia Plath, ‘Sheep in Fog,’ Collected Poems (Faber, 1981).
Susanna Rustin, ‘Eimear McBride: “I wanted to give the reader a very different experience,”’ The Guardian (17 May 2014).
Colm Tóibín, ‘The Censor in Each of Us,’ The New Yorker (6 May 2014).
Waterstones Blog, ‘“Give your manuscript to anyone who will read it.” Eimear McBride,’ (12 May 2014).