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

20702408

 

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.

book review: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

340698181

THE LESSER BOHEMIANS by Eimear McBride
★★★☆☆
Hogarth Press, 2017

 

So, even though I had The Lesser Bohemians on my ‘currently reading’ shelf for over three months, I actually read the bulk of it in the last two days. I think I read the first 75 pages or something and then found myself unable to read this concurrently with War and Peace, so it got put aside for a few months. But even so, this is the longest it’s taken me to read a book all year – and it’s only 310 pages. So, why the delay?

Down down I down to the last flakes in. Dreaming for hours I think in my dream. Over over. Day white tongue teeth. Quickness and slowness. Stilts pander to streets and their up down their. I don’t know what I’ve yet. Wander where no notion wanders in amongst the dust of. Devil may Slip. Then wake up.

Because the whole thing is written like this. I won’t lie – this book is challenging and draining.

But interestingly, the style of prose isn’t what ultimately hurt this for me. Once I got into the rhythm of it, it became easier (reading a few lines out loud every now and then helped), and I sort of vacillated between thinking it was pretentious gibberish, and thinking this Joycean stream of consciousness was actually a very profound and striking means of storytelling. I don’t know, I still haven’t made up my mind.

But my main problem with this book is the story itself, which is basically two highly melodramatic people having a lot of sex. 18-year-old Eilis meets 39-year-old Stephen, and we chronicle their dysfunctional liaison with a heightened pathos verging on absurdity. On the one hand, I sort of admire how Eimear McBride was able to make the stakes of this story feel so high when all that was really at stake was an unhealthy train wreck of a relationship; on the other hand, it got to be somewhat tedious. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wholly captivated by this affair from time to time, against my better judgement.

What frustrates me about this novel is that even though it’s told from Eilis’ point of view, I think Stephen’s story is the one that McBride really wanted to tell. His backstory was unexpected harrowing, more twisted and disturbing than I had possibly imaged. But the more he tells his story, the more Eilis fades. Her whole life and existence becomes about Stephen, and the novel that starts as Eilis’s sexual bildungsroman ultimately casts Eilis in a rather inconsequential role. I was left feeling dissatisfied with her character’s journey, which is frustrating when essentially all your novel has to offer in the first place is characterization.

I didn’t hate it, though, even though I wanted to, for the most part. There was something undeniably stimulating and compelling about this book. I’m tentatively intrigued by McBride’s style and I’m curious about her debut, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. But I would not recommend reading this author lightly – I’d only suggest picking up The Lesser Bohemians if you’re up for a challenge and a bit of weirdness, and more than a fair share of sex scenes.

Thanks to Blogging for Books, Hogarth Press, and Eimear McBride for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.