book review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride
★★★★★
Coffee House Press, 2014

Having already read Eimear McBride’s sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, I thought I was prepared for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. And indeed, I was prepared for McBride’s signature and singular prose style, a terse, choppy sort of stream of consciousness that mimics the incompleteness of thought. It’s a difficult style to warm up to: I’ve heard that listening to this book on audio can help, but personally I tried that and as I’m not an auditory learner at all, I found it much more comprehensible in print. So I think it does depend on your personal preferences, but once you settle into the rhythm of her words, it’s not as daunting as you might expect.

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

What I was not prepared for was how utterly gutting this book ended up being. This has to be one of the most intense, visceral, excruciating things I have read in my life – second only to A Little Life, perhaps? Just, don’t pick this up lightly. Trigger warnings for everything. Seriously, everything.

But it’s not just brutal; it’s good. Form, style, and content all dovetail here for one of the most perceptive examinations of the psychological toll of sexual assault that I have ever read. But more than that, this book is a raw and unfiltered look at sex, isolation, terminal illness, and sibling bonds, and though it’s relentlessly internal in its construction, a commentary on growing up as a young woman in Ireland beautifully underscores the entire thing. The protagonist remains nameless, something that I often find gimmicky and unnecessary, but here it works perfectly as a constant reminder of the narrator’s fractured sense of identity as she finds herself defined by the horrifying things that happen to her and around her as a young girl. This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance, and so harrowing once you do get into it, but I think this is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.


You can pick up a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing here on Book Depository.

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18 thoughts on “book review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

  1. So, I’ve been thinking and I think I might actually disagree? I don’t think A Little Life is more depressing. Although maybe more depressing – but this one is affecting me a lot more viscerally. Although this might have more to do with my lukewarm reaction to ALL than to any objective fact.
    I love your review though, obviously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It should probably be noted that I don’t consider the depressing spectrum to be any kind of objective thing. A Little Life hit me harder than anything I have ever read so I frequently reference it as The Most Depressing Book in the context of my blog, but I also know a lot of people who were very unaffected by it. That is to say, I’m not sure it’s an agree/disagree thing necessarily, because I wouldn’t say that anyone is ‘wrong’ for not being fucked up by A Little Life. Anyway. This book was brutal. Good luck.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fair. ALL is an endless parade of everything that can go wrong going wrong. I am just so very gutted by Girl, I don’t think I will survive this. I am not even listening to the audio on my way to work because that is so not how I want to start my day. (I am learning about Queen Victoria instead, who sounds awful.) The audio really is incredible though – after around three chapters I got into the rhythm of it. I’m not sure I could have read this – the sentences look much more fragmented on paper than they sound when listening to it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am so impatient for you to finish!!! I know you have spoiled yourself but still, I cannot wait to hear your reactions.

        Is Queen Victoria awful in the good way?

        That is so funny – my friend Ashley, whose Overdrive account I use, listens to probably 90% of the books she reads on audio. And she listens to them all at like 2.5x speed. But she started listening to Girl after I checked it out, and she said she couldn’t do it because she found it so choppy and disorienting, and she even slowed it down to 1x to see if that would help. I also found it really choppy on audio but had no problems with it in print. Maybe I’ll reread on audio one day just to get that experience, but it’s funny how strongly my brain resists audio sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I listened to Girl on 1x speed as well – I normally listen a bit faster but not super fast. But here the rhythm was so deliberate, I figured I better stick with how the author wanted it. Also, I am not sure I would have understood a word otherwise.

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  2. This review is fantastic- I’m finding it almost as difficult to write about this book as it was to read, but you’ve nailed it.
    I would not have been able to read this on audio, but it would certainly be interesting to listen to a portion for the stylistic feel of it… I might have to give that a go!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!!! I found it super difficult as well – I waited almost a full week to write this review which I almost never do.

      I would highly recommend that! I listened to the first 3 or 4 chapters on audio and it was really interesting to hear it in that format. I thought I might listen to the whole thing while reading the print at the same time, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day so I ended up ditching the audio. But yes, I’d totally recommend listening to a sample!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your review has me so excited to read this! Which is maybe weird since you describe it as being brutal but I really liked Lesser Bohemians. I have so many books to read in August so I was planning on waiting until autumn but now I want to try and squeeze it in.

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  4. Great review! I had quickly skimmed through your review right before picking it up and it gave me a realistic idea of what to expect from it, so thank you! Now I read it more calmly and I can totally say I agree with your comparison to A Little Life (it makes perfect sense to me that you gave Girl 5 stars, by the way). It somehow reminded me in terms of atmosphere of Milkman, for it being dense, depressing and the sense of powerlessness both heroines have. …are Irish people ok???

    “This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance” >> yes, absolutely! Especially the beginning. But as you said, really worth putting the effort into it because it’s such a good book. I’m glad I read it and I hope to try the audio at some point.

    Can you tell me what you found of the audio? I see you switched to print, and I’m not very confident getting into denser, literary works in audio, but I’d certainly like to try this one & Milkman.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!!! Hahaha I think that’s what all of you guys in the group have said to be so far – ‘Rachel, this is SO your kind of book.’ I totally get the Milkman comparison; both are definitely concerned with a lack of agency for women in Ireland, which makes sense as it’s such an aggressively Catholic country.

      As for the audio, McBride herself reads it and I think she does a great job. I love when authors read their own books. My only problems were 1) the choppiness of the sentences is really heightened by the audio imo, and 2) my brain just does not retain things in audio format, I need to see something with my eyes to really ‘get it’. So that’s a me problem, not a problem with the audiobook itself. I think I’d do a lot better with it on a second listen, because now that I know what happens I’d be able to follow the story more easily. Hopefully you have a similar experience if you revisit it!

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    • Yes, same here, I want to read more from them too! The mix of English-language and translated fiction they do is really exciting. (I forgot halfway through typing that this is a comment on my review of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and I was about to be like, ‘I think they published A Girl is a Half-formed Thing!’ 🤦🏻‍♀️)

      Liked by 1 person

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