To commend a book for its “uniqueness” is common in the world of reviews, but what if that attribute happens to be true? Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, is nothing if not distinctive and almost singular in its style. Full of sentences devoid of punctuation—save for periods and question marks, which are often employed in a brutal, disorienting manner—McBride gives us a story told through the stream of consciousness of her protagonist. A young Irish girl coming of age amidst a backdrop of strict Catholicism, the deteriorating health of her brother, and abuse both sexual and physical (sometimes combined), McBride’s narrator spends years attempting to claim and wield power over her personhood, while combatting traditionalist expectations. Guilt and shame share equal footing with hope and resilience, and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which won the inaugural 2013 Goldsmiths Prize and the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, is as gripping and intelligent as it is harrowing and grim.
“When I sat down to write, I knew I wanted to give the reader a different kind of experience,” McBride, who primarily grew up in Ireland, says. Her book is largely modeled after method acting, the process by which an actor attempts to live the experience of a character he or she is attempting to portray, and a school of drama McBride once studied. The goal with the novel’s style, she notes, is to take the writer out of the equation and create close proximity between the reader and the narrator, to the point where the two are entwined. The narrator’s jarring, jumbled language is a direct representation of this and a reflection of McBride’s own thought patterns. “I don’t think in complete sentences and I don’t experience life in complete sentences. I don’t experience life in words at all,” she says. “So why should something that’s experiential come out in neatly-turned sentences that are structurally intact?”
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was written over a feverish six months in 2004, when McBride was 27. Though she grew up in a house full of readers, and had been writing since childhood, McBride began without a sense of how a book was supposed to be written, nor of what the story would be or how it would end. But once she had a first sentence and committed herself to writing 1,000 words a day—which she edited and revised as she went—everything fell into place.
McBride initially wanted to avoid abuse—a tired trope, she says, in Irish literature—but became interested in the accumulation of trauma and the effect it has on someone who’s resilient. She was also keen to look at these events through “a prism of female sexuality, which has no vocabulary.” Though she had been introduced to playwright Sarah Kane’s work while studying theatre in London in the 1990s, it wasn’t until she saw a production of Crave during the writing process that things clicked. “She spoke of a type of female emotion that is completely negated in all aspects of actual female life,” McBride says of Kane, whose “completely uncompromising way of how she attacks her subjects” became an influence, along with a more obvious forerunner—James Joyce.
Once the book was finished, it took nearly a decade for a press to pick it up. Though the rejections were mostly positive with regards to McBride’s inventive and poetic use of language, many publishers found the content and level of intellect off-putting. Eventually, a tiny press in Norwich (where McBride now lives), Galley Beggar, published it in 2013, and Coffee House Press purchased the U.S. rights not long after, when Elizabeth McCracken sang the novel’s praises. But McBride says of the lengthy, grueling experience: “I don’t believe the novel is dead. I think the [U.K.] publishing industry is lazy and has encouraged writers to be unambitious. And it’s patronized its readers by treating them as though they are couch potatoes.”
The road for women writers, McBride adds, is worse. “There’s an element of infantilization of female culture, and that women readers are seen as people who like to read a nice romance with their feet up while eating a biscuit,” she says. “Female writers—what they are, and what is being expected of them, is increasingly diminished. And they’re being pushed back into these very childish 1950s images of what women are supposed to be, and what women want out of life, and what their interests are and what their concerns are.”
With A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, McBride hopes to change this sort of thinking, and despite the odds, remains optimistic. “I haven’t given up yet,” she says.