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

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2014)

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing follows an unnamed narrator from early childhood to young adulthood. Her whole life and her family is marked by her older brother’s illness. Although he survives the brain tumour as a child, their parents’ marriage falls apart and the father effectively exits their lives. Their religious mother credits prayer with saving her son’s life but is filled with anger at what her own life has become. The brother has not escaped unscathed either, both physically and mentally.

The story is told in McBride’s signature, disjointed, in-her-head style. Having previously read The Lesser Bohemians, I knew what to expect but it can take a little time to get into the rhythm of McBride’s writing.

We see the narrator’s deep love and connection with her brother but also her shame and confusion over their relationship and her place in the family. Increasingly cast aside by her mother, she seeks affection elsewhere, becoming a victim of sexual abuse at a young age. From there she seems to spiral, attempting to take control of her life through reckless sex, alternatively pushing away her family and attempting to hold them close.

This is not an easy book to read. Both because of McBride’s disjointed narrative style and because of the horrible depictions of abuse. It’s brutal and we are directly in the mind of a young woman who is falling apart.

As hard as it is though I appreciate McBride’s presentation of how complicated abuse can be. Our narrator doesn’t see herself as a victim but instead believes she is guilty. Indeed, this is what she is told over and over again by those around her. Here we witness the heavy weight that religion can place on people. As a Christian, this was especially hard to read. What I would view as the perversion of something beautiful (my own faith) is unfortunately not an uncommon use of Christianity. McBride writes beautifully, drawing in the traditional prayers and chants of Catholicism and showing how they become twisted.

Likewise, McBride shows familial relationships at their most awful and honest. It can be easy to wonder why this young woman doesn’t simply cut ties with this family that hurts and rejects her but we also see how wrapped up in one another they are and her deep love for them in spite of everything.

McBride’s writing and content is certainly not for every reader. But for those who venture in to the dark depths, there is much to reward you.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride”

  1. This is definitely the hardest book I’ve ever read, for both the reasons you said. There is another book from her coming out this year, which I think is told in “regular” prose instead of her usual fragmented sentences, which I’m quite curious to get to! I haven’t picked up Lesser Bohemians yet and, considering just thinking of Half-Formed Girl makes me emotional, I’m not sure I’m up for another book from her anytime soon! How does that one compare, do you think?

    By the way, great review, Karissa!

    1. I found Lesser Bohemians slightly “easier” (still very hard in content). Maybe because it felt like it had more plot? Plus it had at least some happy moments between characters whereas this felt like there were none. I actually got an ARC of McBride’s new book and posted a review in early January. It is written in a more regular prose style if you’re used to her work but I wouldn’t call it an entirely straightforward piece of writing either.

  2. I feel like just lately you and I are circling around books about Catholicism. I’m nearing the end of the audio version of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and I’m surprised. I’ve read her novels before, and they always have religious fanatics, but never the kind that feel in a Catholic vein.

    I’m assuming McBride chose a fragmented style of writing to match the fragmented lives of the characters, but I’ve really lost patience for most books that aren’t clearly written. In my defense, I’ve read SO MANY experimental works.

    1. I wonder if O’Connor’s writing feels less blatantly Catholic because she came from a region where her religion would have been in the minority. Whereas McBride is writing in Ireland where Catholic dominate.

      This book may not be for you but I do feel like McBride is very deliberate with her fragmented prose style. Whereas with other books it’s felt like the author was simply doing it to be different and draw attention to their own “genius”.

  3. Great review! I adored every minute of this book but it was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever read. She’s such an interesting and brilliant author.

    1. Thanks! I think I found it a little easier simply because I’d read Lesser Bohemians already and knew what to expect but definitely a gut punch. She’s brilliant for sure.

  4. Great review! I completely agree with your thoughts, especially in that this can be an immensely challenging book but also ultimately rewarding. I am both excited and terrified to read more of her work, and I know this one will stay with me for a very long time.

    1. Thanks! I think I liked The Lesser Bohemians better but I’m not sure if that’s because it has more of a plot or simply because I read it first.

    2. Ah, that’s interesting. I think more plot would help me get back into the writing style a bit quicker so that is encouraging! I liked A Girl is Half-Formed Thing so much that I’ve been afraid her other books won’t quite match it for me, though of course I’m hoping to be proven wrong. That you liked Lesser Bohemians more definitely bodes well!

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