You don’t need to read McBride’s own admittance to see that her debut novel, published 10 years after she wrote it and the winner of several major awards, was heavily influenced by Ulysses. Indeed, Joyce’s magnum opus casts such a shadow over all of Irish literature published in its wake that it can be hard to not make the comparisons. While A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing welcomes such parallels, it’s a strong enough work to stand on its own two feet, and McBride’s accomplishments could justifiably shake up an arguably stale contemporary literary canon by going back to the Modernist tradition.
Stream of consciousness narratives can be notoriously tough to read, more suited to academic settings for some. I myself was put off of reading the novel for a while due to flashbacks to my 2nd year of English literature where I spent a good few weeks slaving over Ulysses for an essay. It’s a literary tool that requires real work on behalf of the reader, and while that can often be worthwhile (I will forever love Virginia Woolf), it can also be exhausting and just not what the more casual reader is looking for, particularly when free time is in short supply. This is a book that demands your time, your attention and your passion. But boy, is it worth it!
The disjointed prose – void of commas and speech marks, littered with Irish colloquialisms, starting and stopping suddenly, moving between an ensemble of voices seemingly at random – is what hits you from the first page. It’s poetic yet flows naturally, invoking the often messy web of our thoughts as we try to detangle them into something decipherable. There are moments where the nameless narrator – an Irish woman as the story follows her life from birth – seems unable to find the right word for a particular phrase, so she jams in one that doesn’t fit, and we know it doesn’t fit but it works. Sometimes your mind just can’t fill in the blanks when necessary, and that’s something McBride entirely understands. The story unfolds and big events happen yet aren’t instantly revealed to the reader, but when you realise just what’s going on, the emotional impact is all the more powerful for it.
This prose – so bleakly beautiful, so poetic in its examination of the grotesque – lifts the work to a whole new level, to the point where you barely notice how conventional the story itself is. In many ways, it’s the great Irish novel narrative – troubled families, the hypocrisy of religion and the Catholic Church, child abuse, lots of sex and even more inner turmoil. This is a novel of pain and McBride isn’t afraid to put her protagonist through the wringer as she is granted barely a moment of contentedness, let alone joy. She endures a tough relationship with her mother, a Catholic determined to do good by her religion even as she directly contradicts its central commandments, and an unsettling power struggle with the uncle who abused her. The novel’s heart lies in the relationship between the narrator and her older brother, whose childhood brain tumour looms over the pair of them throughout their lives. There are no heroes here: tears are shed, fists are flung and frustrations are unflinchingly unleashed. Like the prose, this is a story that pulls no punches and shatters expectations.
It’s not hard to understand why this novel took a decade to publish. A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing doesn’t so much invite the reader as challenge them to take on the seemingly impenetrable fog of abrasive prose, fragmented syntax and pitch-black darkness, but the rewards are worth the effort. It’s not easy, but sometimes the best things in life are anything but.