A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is like nothing I’ve ever read.
It took me ten minutes to read each page because there was so much in every line. The style is in sometimes clipped sentences, often reverse word-order, and there are no proper names; the pronouns are left for the reader to figure out. It is written in second person, addressed to the narrator’s older brother. He has trouble speaking because of congenital brain damage. This is just one of many traumas, first and second-hand that the girl at the center absorbs. The narrative covers critical incidents in her childhood, but becomes very repetitive by the second half. This is done purposely. The damage she sustains in her formative years causes psychic and emotional problems that hold her back from true adulthood, and thus the echoing cycles and the obsession with in-the-moment experience. From listening to her interviews, I suspect the author would not agree with my simplistic interpretation. However, we must meet McBride in the “third space” (to paraphrase my current English professor) while reading, bringing our own perspective to the text, because so much detail is missing. This is true of every work, but with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, exponentially so.
The author’s writing is poetic in style, and almost stream of consciousness in structure. These recall her fellow Irelander James Joyce, or even William Faulkner. Like those and many others, she employs visceral symbolism, often in pairs: sex and violence, cold water and baptism (change), pungent smell and humiliation, eyes and fear, God and rage. But she takes this experiment to a new and exciting level, breathing her narrator’s state of mind into the reader, who has to invest quite a bit of mental immersion just to keep up. If film is a hot medium (Marshall McLuhan: “hot” meaning it takes less stimuli to envelop the audience and thus requires less participation on their part), and comics are a cold media, then reading Eimear McBride is naked snow angels on a Martian polar cap.
I believe this work has set a precedent. It should encourage other authors to make their own bold innovations as the novel evolves in the twenty-first century.