Sunday, November 16, 2014

reading: a girl is a half-formed thing

I think I vaguely knew this book existed, that it was out in the world. But when I saw it at the library the speed at which I snatched it from the shelf perhaps indicated that my vagueness masked something a little stronger. And when I put it down three days ago I felt full with something that I could not yet articulate. 

You know those puzzles you often see online, the ones that appear to be a jumble of letters, nothing quite making sense. But somehow you can decipher the message, something to do with the first and last letter being in the right spot allows your brain to reorganise the letters within each word until you see the message. Until you can read it as clearly as if it were never jumbled in the first place. Over the last few days, as I've let this story wash over me I've thought more and more about those puzzles, about our ability to find what is clear beneath what is not. 

Eimear McBride writes in a stream of consciousness style, but there is nothing smooth here. Her words are sharp, jagged even, torn and rough and sometimes difficult to read - difficult because of both the style and the subject matter. 

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a story about family, about faith, about death, about desperation. It follows the narrator, an Irish girl, from about the age of two as she grapples with the world. With a pious mother, an older brother living with a brain tumour, an absent father, a sexually abusive uncle who rapes her at thirteen - a trail of destructive relationships that leads to an ending not wholly unexpected. 

We follow her as she grows out of her small country hometown, as she moves to the city and starts college, as she follows this path of using sex as a salve for a wound that gapes at the edges. As she continues to engage in a toxic, abusive relationship with her uncle that becomes increasingly violent. As her brothers brain tumour returns and she watches him die. She is falling apart, piece by piece, from the very first pages. Her destruction catalogued across a landscape whose brutality matches her existence, in a family who is saved only from complete failure by the relationship of the girl and her brother - the you in the story. 

No characters are named, descriptions are painted in broad strokes and sometimes not at all. The staccato language, the unformed thoughts, the lingering feeling of reading one of those puzzles, the ones with the jumbled letters, and yet as I turned page after page I understood this story. I grasped these characters, I began to see what was clear underneath what was not. 

There is something about this story. I'm not sure if it's the style, the characters, the ending I had almost hoped for but that still hurt. I don't know, but when I turned that last page and realised that was it, it was a sharp hit to the gut. There wasn't anything else. 

It's taken me a couple of days to sit down and write this and I've barely read anything since I put this book down. Maybe I needed the time to process it, needed the time to get what was in my head and put it into words. And even now I don't feel like I'm doing this story justice. I don't feel like I'm getting this down right. 

Eimear McBride is an Irish author and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is her debut novel. It took six months to write and nine years to publish. Let that wash over you. It has been almost universally praised, an instant classic. A work of genius and just damn good storytelling. Something that works at you until it gets under your skin and you find yourself wanting to reach into the pages and grab the hand of the narrator and hold onto her tight. 

But something else about this story, apart from the Irish girl at its heart, has grabbed me, has allowed me an insight into my own work that feels overwhelming. McBride's story helped me realise my reluctance to paint my own characters in minute detail, my own preference for broad strokes. It helped me to understand why I place thoughts and feelings above specifics and why sometimes that is not just a way to write, it's the only way. 

Some stories are better when you have to fight for what is underneath, when you have to do some of the work of clearing the dust and dirt and rubble of words to decipher the message. And when you let that message settle into every corner of your mind, when you wait until it bubbles to the surface, maybe that's when you get to be a part of the story, even if only in the smallest way. 

This is not an easy read. But then, why should it be? What it is, is a book worth your time. A story worth working for. The narrator is a character worth knowing, worth remembering. Eimear McBride is an author worth the praise. 

kb xx