A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

A Novel
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The dazzling, fearless debut novel that won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and the book the New York Times hails as “a future classic”.

In scathing, furious, unforgettable prose, Eimear McBride tells the story of a young girl’s devastating adolescence as she and her brother, who suffers from a brain tumor, struggle for a semblance of normalcy in the shadow of sexual abuse, denial, and chaos at home. Plunging readers inside the psyche of a girl isolated by her own dangerously confusing sexuality, pervading guilt, and unrelenting trauma, McBride’s writing carries echoes of Joyce, O’Brien, and Woolf. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a revelatory work of fiction, a novel that instantly takes its place in the canon.

Praise

Winner of 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize
Winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award
Winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize
Winner of 2013 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize
Shortlisted for the Folio Prize
Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal’s Best Books of 2014
One of Time Out New York’s Ten Best Books of 2014
Selected as one of NPR's 2014 Great Reads
A New York Magazine Best Book of 2014
A Boston Globe Best Book of 2014

Chicago Tribune Printers Row Journal Best Books of 2014
Star Tribune 
Best Fiction of 2014
Electric Literature 25 Best Novels of 2014
 
Largehearted Boy
 Favorite Novels of 2014

The New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of 2014
Vanity Fair 11 Best Books of 2014

"One of the most groundbreaking pieces of literature to come from Ireland, or anywhere, in recent years."Vanity Fair

“For all its experiments with form, the events of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing are easy for readers to follow—McBride’s great skill is in communicating a clear story through a complicated use of language…A remarkable book…Her language is artfully deranged to make familiar experiences strange and new but in that derangement there is vitality, even joy. The desolation of the tale is held in a gripping tension with the richness of the telling… McBride is pushing further even than Beckett did into what he called ‘the syntax of weakness.’ Her very words have holes in them.”The New York Review of Books

"That this deliberately stunted narrative language retains its power past the girl's childhood and into her adult years is a testament to McBride's verbal dexterity and tight narrative focus… A heartbreaking but stunning read, a portrait of suffering barely visible under cloudy water.”—Chicago Tribune
 
ShatteringBe prepared to be blown away by this raw, visceral, brutally intense neomodernist first novel…  While McBride's girl may be a half-formed thing, there's nothing half-formed about even her most fragmented sentences… Her American publisher writes, "Don't be cowed by the first few pages of this novel. Think about how glad you were that you read past the beginning of The Sound and the Fury, or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." The references to William Faulkner and James Joyce aren't outlandish; McBride's work also evokes Samuel Beckett and Edna O'Brien… McBride's writing is so alive with internal rhymes, snippets of overheard conversation, prayers and unfiltered emotion, and her narrator so feisty, that readers can't help but be pulled into the vortex of this devastating, ferociously original debut.”--NPR
 
Brilliant…bracing, unrelenting, and audacious…Yes, this book actually gave me nightmares. And yet I did not want to stop reading it…It’s this thread of love that sustains the novel and keeps it from becoming an unending tale of misery. It’s also what gives weight and power to the novel’s most beautifully written passages…A literary sensation.”—The Millions
 
A future classic…[with] inevitable comparisons to the Irish tradition — Beckett’s monologues, Joyce’s Molly Bloom soliloquy in Ulysses and the ontogenetic prose of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man— and to the Irish/­British female avants: Edna O’Brien, Virginia Woolf, Ann Quin, Christine Brooke-Rose. What all that praise had in common, besides that it was deserved, was the sad sense that the English-language novel had matured from modernism, and that in maturing its spirit was lost…McBride’s book was a shock to that sentiment, not least because it is about that sentiment. A Girl subjects the outer language the world expects of us to the inner syntaxes that are natural to our minds, and in doing so refuses to equate universal experience with universal expression — a false religion that has oppressed most contemporary literature, and most contemporary souls.”—Joshua Cohen, New York Times Book Review
 
Blazingly daring…[McBride’s] prose is a visceral throb, and the sentences run meanings together to produce a kind of compression in which words, freed from the tedious march of sequence, seem to want to merge with one another, as paint and musical notes can. The results are thrilling, and also thrillingly efficient. The language plunges us into the center of experiences that are often raw, unpleasant, frightening, but also vital.”—James Wood, New Yorker
 
"Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is simply a brilliant book—entirely emotionally raw and at the same time technically astounding. Her prose is as haunting and moving as music, and the love story at the heart of the novel—between a sister and brother—as true and wrenching as any in literature. This is a book about everything: family, faith, sex, home, transcendence, violence, and love. I can't recommend it highly enough."—Elizabeth McCracken
 
"Unrelenting in voice and impact."—Vanity Fair

“A life told from deep down inside, beautiful, harrowing, and ultimately rewarding the way only a brilliant work of literature can be.” —Michael Chabon
 
"A virtuosic debut: subversive, passionate, and darkly alchemical. Read it and be changed."—Eleanor Catton
 
Ten pages in and all the bells start ringing. It explodes into your chest.” –Caitlin Moran
 
A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is wild, brave, moving and darkly cryptic.” –Chris Cleave
 
“A novel both formally innovative and psychologically unsparing. Ms. McBride's story follows the narrator from her infancy in rural Ireland to early adulthood, dwelling on two major traumas: her older brother's fight against brain cancer and her self-immolating affair with a sleazy uncle-in-law. Ms. McBride's shattered soliloquys masterfully convey the maelstrom of teenage sexuality…But softening the shrapnel-like bombardment of impressions is the narrator's tender and tragic love for her brother…The hurt of adolescence is a familiar subject for a novel, but Ms. McBride's stylistic daring makes it fresh and raw.” –The Wall Street Journal
 
"It was a really astonishing book. We felt that from the first time we read it - it stood out from the crowd. . . It's incredibly original. It has a raw energy we all responded to. It has real lyrical qualities even though the subject matter can sometimes be so shocking." —BBC

"[W]ritten in a Joycean stream of consciousness with an Irish lilt, and sentence fragments transmit the pervasive sense of urgency, of thoughts spinning faster than the tongue can speak. . . an unforgettable novel.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"McBride calls to mind both Joyce and Stein in her syntax and mechanics, but she brings her own emotional range to the table, as well. . . open-minded readers (specifically those not put off by the unusual language structure) will be surprised, moved and awed by this original novel. . . This is exhilarating fiction from a voice to watch."—Kirkus, starred review

"A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a gorgeously odd novel. . . McBride's style, which she has called an attempt to capture "the moment just before language becomes formatted thought," is the most remarkable aspect of the book." —NPR

"Eimear McBride is a writer of remarkable power and originality"—David Collard, The Times Literary Supplement

"It’s hard to imagine another narrative that would justify this way of telling, but perhaps McBride can build another style from scratch for another style of story. That’s a project for another day, when this little book is famous"Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books

"It is always a wonderful and satisfying thing to hear that an unknown debut author has won a major prize for writing. . . And when the news that the unknown writer winning the big prize is being published in the United States by Minneapolis' Coffee House Press, well, the news is all the more welcome." —Star Tribune

“[A Girl is a Half-formed Thing] is formally groundbreaking, and has been declared a work of “genius” by Man Booker winner Anne Enright. It came to widespread public attention last year, when it was awarded the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, set up to reward iconoclastic fiction. Since then, the book has been shortlisted for the Folio Prize and now longlisted for the Baileys: the establishment, in other words, is remaking itself in the image of the revolutionary.” —The Telegraph

"Eimear McBride is that old-fashioned thing, a genius…The adventurous reader will find that they have a real book on their hands, a live one, a book that is not like any other."Anne Enright, The Guardian

“One of the most remarkable things about [A Girl is a Half-formed Thing] is hearing the thoughts of a woman from the inside out. There are very few authentic literary examples of the inner workings of a woman’s mind.”—The Independent Ireland, “Women Are a lot Angrier and They’re Not Looking for Love”

"The language is expressionistic, confiding, and plays havoc with the normal rules of syntax and structure. For the reader, the impression is of a voice so close to your ear that you can almost hear the breathing." —Irish Independent

"McBride’s much praised and powerful first novel." —BBC

"An astonishing literary debut" —The Independent

“Eimear McBride very deliberately set out to recapture in her own writing what Joyce had done for her in his – opened up parts of life that couldn’t be described in conventional language.” The Telegraph, “Books about Ireland: holiday reading guide”

"McBride was hailed as "that old-fashioned thing, a genius" by fellow Irish novelist Anne Enright." . . . This is a novel so emotionally overwhelming that it can be hard to finish a sentence, but also one in which each line repays thought and second reading." —The Guardian

“[I]t was heartening to observe that the most talked about book of the season, at least among the people I was around, will be published in the United States by the tiny and prescient Coffee House Press. It’s called A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and it’s by Eimear McBride—look out for it in September.” —The New Yorker, ”Page-Turner” blog, “Poetry in Seattle: an A.W.P. Diary”

"A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is to modern fiction what bare-knuckle fist fights are to the Marquess-of-Queensbury-ruled boxing – this is the savage and fucking hard-hitting end of the genre. . . [A]bsolutely brilliant."—The Only Way is Reading

“I urge readers to step outside their literary boxes and experience this remarkable book.”—Shelf Unbound

“McBride has created a world, that is not just accessible but positively drags you in, surrounds and infiltrates you. Her innovative approach to language is sometimes shocking, but it’s the only way that we can genuinely experience the whole of the character.” Tales From a Bruce Eye View

“Amazing writing.” —Library Journal, “Prepub Alert: My Fiction Picks”

"I’m left with great admiration for the author’s skill."—Bluestocking Journal

"A wonderful but harrowing first person stream of consciousness. . . it truly is one of the most extraordinary things I've read in the last year." —Harper’s Bazaar

“At its most fundamental level this is a heartwrenching story of love, loss and an exceptionally strong sibling bond. The sadness of it was almost unbearable; it didn’t remind me of grief, it felt like it. But in as far as grief can only spring from love, there is something beautiful about that, and about much of the writing.” PaperBlog

“McBride has produced something unparalleled in pace and tone to the works of other Irish writers.” The Vault

“Playful, rich, exciting—rarely have I read a book where I felt that the medium actually is the message.” The Star Online

“Eimear McBride’s victory in the Bailey Prize with A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is a heartening though rare instance of a difficult book being given a reward from mainstream publishing, not just from independent readers and reviewers.” Quadrapheme, “Why difficult literature is a good thing”

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a challenging, knotty read that demands your full attention, but it’s hardly a chore to completely turn yourself over to it. . . the lyrical approach to narration that moves this prize-winning novel beyond simply a wonderful story to a breathtaking piece of art.” —UCL Center for Publishing

"Applause and credit is well earned, for the voice is like nothing you’ve ever heard before."—Kingston Creative Writers

"McBride’s experiment reaches back into the archaic and the incoherent: it is not so much an expression of genius as of ungenius, a dismantling of the scaffolding of thought, of culture and the Church, expressing instead the profundity of fragmentation and psychological disrepair."—The Conversation

 

Excerpt

1

For you. You'll soon. You'll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she'll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I'd say. I'd say that's what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Walking up corridors up the stairs. Are you alright? Will you sit, he says. No. I want she says. I want to see my son. Smell from dettol through her skin. Mops diamond floor tiles all as strong. All the burn your eyes out if you had some. Her heart going pat. Going dum dum dum. Don't mind me she's going to your room. See the. Jesus. What have they done? Jesus. Bile for. Tidals burn. Ssssh. All over. Mother. She cries. Oh no. Oh no no no.

I know. The thing wrong. It's a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can't hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can't or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.

She saw it first when you couldn't open your eye. Don't wink so long wind'll change and you'll stay that way. I'm not Mammy. It's got stuck. She pull it open. Hold it up. I can't it's all fall down.

And now Holy Family on a Saturday night. He is leaning you are sleeping she the chair me whirlabout. Listen in to doctor chat. We done the best we could. There really wasn't much. It's all through his brain like the roots of trees. Sorry. Don't say. That. He's running out I'm afraid. I'm afraid he's running down. You should take him home, enjoy him while you can. He's not. He is. Can't you operate again? We can't. Shush. Something? Chemo then. We'll have a go at that.

Gethsemane dear Lord hear our prayer our. Please. Intercession. Night in hospital beds. Faces on the candlewick. Lino in the knees. Please don't God take. Our. Holy Mary mother of all, humbly we beseech thee.

You white-faced feel the needle go in. Feel fat juicy poison poison young boy skin. In your arteries. Eyeballs. Spine hands legs. Puke it cells up all day long. No Mammy don't let them.

Weeks for you. Weeks it. Scared and bald and wet the bed. Dark trees outside for me when it weather rains. She praying in a coat until I am froze. Hard chapel kneelers bare-kneed real repents. She does. And our father was. Where? Somewhere there. I think.

There's good news and bad news. It's shrunk. He's saved. He's not. He'll never be.

So like it lump it a short breath's what you've got. Jesus in her blood that minute. Rejoice sacred heart of Christ. But we'll never be rid do you understand? he says. Shush now she says shush.

Your pink face make that sitting up the best thing she's ever done. Watching you going growing hair. Scabby over slices where scalpels were. Don't look. Telling what's the time and where you are. Makes her happy. Makes our father. Walk down corridors alone.

He says I can't be waiting for it all the time. I'd give my eyes to fix him but. The heart cannot be wrung and wrung. And she like calmest Virgin Mary sitting on the bed. Hands warming up her sides for. What're you saying? Breath. Going? Leaving? But he's just stopped dying. This one's to come. Please don't no I won't stop you. Could never make you do a thing. You'll support us. Aren't you great? Oh the house is mine. It's for the best. For who you me? Board my body up. I'm not for loving. Anymore. I'll live for housework. Dressing kids. And you for mortgage new shoes spuds. Can't live short hope but gas bills long and paid on time too. Oh so kind. Aren't you the fine shape of a man.

He left her with a fifty-pound note. Take care! Stroke combing full untidied hair.

Thinking I think of you and me. Our empty spaces where fathers should be. Whenabouts we might find them and what we'd do to fill them up.

But didn't time continue still. Where's Daddy? Gone. Why's that? Just is. And yelp she at the strength growing to your tips. Poke belly of baby that's kicking is me. Full in myself. Bustling hatchery. And I loved swimming to your touch. Lay on the lining for your strokes for you secret pressed hellos. Show my red foot. Look. Look there. Baby when you're born I pick your name. See you and me were busy with each other long before I came.

She was careful of you. Saying let's take it slow. Mind your head dear heart. And her guts said Thank God. For her gasp of air. For this grant of Nurse I will. Learning you Our Fathers art. And when you slept I lulled in joyful mysteries glorious until I kingdom come. Mucus stogging up my nose. Scream to rupture day. Fatty snorting like a creature. A vinegar world I smelled. There now a girleen isn't she great. Bawling. Oh Ho. Now you're safe. But I saw less with these flesh eyes. Outside almost without sight. She, asking after and I'm all fine. Hand on my head. Her hand on my back. Dividing from the sweet of mother flesh that could not take me in again. I curled there learning limb from limb. Curdled under hot lamps. Sorrow lapped. I'm so glad your brother's lived. That he'll see you. It'll all be. But. Something's coming. Wiping off my begans. Wiping all my every time. I struggle up to. I struggle from. The smell of milk now. Going dim. Going blank. Going white.

2

Two me. Four you five or so. I falling. Reel table leg to stool. Grub face into her cushions. Squeal. Baby full of snot and tears. You squeeze on my sides just a bit. I retch up awful tickle giggs. Beyond stopping jig and flop around. I fall crack something. My head banged. Oop. Trouble for you. But. Quick the world rushed out like waters. Slap of. Slap of -everywhere smells kitchen powder perfume soap of hedges in the winter dogs and sawdust on a butcher's floor. New. Not new. I remember. Patterned in my brain. I feel the carpet under that scratch me when you drag my leg. I know its gold and turquoise coils. Flowers on. Leaves for green. The couch leg I drawn red biro in the grain. Digging. Singing long long ago in the woods of Gartnamona I heard a blackbird singing in a blackthorn tree. Oh. That's come from. Come from where? I can't remember any before.

You bent over. Don't cry don't cry. Trot it out. I think I might. Don't. Whinge get beats for you or me. Wooden spoon worse than hands or clip on the ear. I'll give you something to cry about. Making a holy show with that big lip. Stop your gurning. Sorry Mammy. I won't cry so, though something's happen in my head. I woke up. And stare at your brown hair. Soft boyish bob on your round face. Must be the washing brushing combing of it. Attentive loving mother. I remember. I have seen. Such a pride and joy in him. Those doctors nurses said it would not. Dead in follicle dead in root. But there it is she says sprigging away. Don't pull it you, giving slap hand for me.

I flee from washing brushing. Get the teeth in good and deep. Too much. That knuckling scrubbing. Like soapsuds scalp scratched in. She'll work her arms out. No lice here. No disease. No psoriasis or dandruff for many miles to see.

I'll jump the bath when she has me. Running with my headful of shampoo shouting no Mammy no no no. Cold chest where water hits windscreen belly in the rain. Down those stairs fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead. In my eyes. Nettle them. Mammy. Yelling Lady you come back or you'll get what for. A mad goat I'll be. Rubbing bubbles. Worse and worse and hotter like mints I'll turn my nose at. Always get me. In the hall. You by wormy bit of hair. Lug me rubbing ankle skin up the stairs. She in suddy ocean. You just settle down. Quicker over the quicker's done. I am boldness incarnate, little madam little miss. Put back your head I'll wash it down and off your face. Haaaa wat. Blow spit. Thhh. Bubbles. Muckle face with a cloth. There for your bubbles. Eejit. Don't you want hair like your brother's? See that lovely shiny bright. I do. Out in handfuls but two years on--as good as you. Doctors nurses. So now so. For little limp and tunnel vision aren't bad when you are well.

Teeth is though. Worse you than me. All rotted yours. Nothing even like milk. Just keep an eye it's normal after all he's had. His news'll come in and should be fine. Not black, she said and threw them out. Spoiled not washed or washed enough. And would not keep them in a matchstick box. Mine are safe. Don't touch. Safely in my head. When yours weren't you wouldn't like to see the look on her face. Being reminded. So you make secret seconds in Wrigley's spearmint gum. Stick in the gaps in case she said open up. She says wash your teeth God's sake every other child has theirs. But the doctor said. You could have kept a few I'm sure. Yes Mammy. Don't just yes Mammy me. Mammy yes. You said always yes when I did no. Poor teeth yours and not the fifty p's I'll sue. For no good reason either. Lucky. Blessed I was. Your second lot were hard sturdy. And you take care. Though you'd have liked them better then, I'd say, than now.

3

We're living in the country cold and wet with slugs going across the carpet every night. Now when you are seven eight. Me five. This house, green growing up the outside.

You and me having slug scum races from the doorway to the source where is it. Get that dirty thing out of this house I don't know where they get in. We wondered ever, seeking slug nests in the sofa. Under the grate and found a lizard running hell for leather in the ash. Come in with the coal black buckets but it was hot too hot. Under the fire in cinder we rake back and forth. It bolt out you were faster still than me. Scoop it up in time it might have been a newt I think. Get a jam jar get it. Stuck in that twig. I wallowed in its turning eye. Sickish in my throat, thinking it feels scum like slug roads. Never you ever touch it. A slap for every word of warn we get. Never. Ever. Touch. That. Dirty. Thing. It'll. Give. You. Warts. That. Is. Di. Sgust. Ing. Still we kept its jam jar in the shed until I broke it it died of fright you said and threw it at the cat who ran. Fat cat full of shit. Oh-e oh-e oh-e what you said. Yellow squirting if you touched him. Don't. Pick. Up. That. Dirty. Cat.

Blasted in the winter. Pelted and rain rush under the kitchen door. She slap it with a broom away. Bunch up papers under there. Look at that. Streaming down the walls and windows full of damp. Godforsaken house it is look out it's lashing down.

You and me swimming star wars in the puddles of it. Lino reefs of other worlds. My dirty fingers picking bigger holes. And made the stairs Niagara Falls and threw men over tied with wool. Lie on our stomachs eating piece of bread with butter sugar on top. A glass window Mammy I want one. Don't get it on my floor.

Howl winter all through the night that year in the trees where we climbed on and the hedges on the road. No cars here. No one comes. Things crying in the fields for me. Say they want me and coming down the walls for. She's coming Mammy. Who? The banshee. Don't be silly. Sure isn't your brother here? Won't he mind you if anything comes along. Should I close the door or leave it open? I don't know. Shut bad out or shut it in? Worse you. And said They are coming. For you and me. Stop it. Coming for us and we're without the knife. What knife? The one that goes with the magic machine. What is it? Makes the noise for killing bad things. A big dark tunnel bangs. How do you know? That's what I had, me shouting it burns awful ahhhh. The doctor said fire came out my eyes. He didn't. He did and these aren't mine. They are so. Mine melted. These are goat's. Goat eyes and the devil wants them back. My throat's closing. Shut up. Ugh shut up. Mammy? But wakes me in the night. Goat eyes riding off into the sky.

Always in the house, drifting round the stairs or sitting by our puddles little beast in your head. Sleeping happy homed up your brain stem now and fingers only strumming on your bad left side. Don't you knock your brother's head. You stumble. Not that bad. And walking into doors a laugh. Is blind eye at side like in eyelid? No. Lake water? No. Like glass? You said it is like nothing at all. It must be something what? And words, trace stammer of. At school why do you talk like that? Notoriety it likes maybe. It's in your sums X and red lines through a copy book for no no no. Wrong, the teachers writing, I explained this all to you. Wrong you do not understand. Wrong not listening paying attention in class. Again. No, you were not.

It's clear it's clear it's there it's there. Cosy kernelled in your head. It must have strings pulling all the time. Sly in affection. Nasty thing. Having a chew. Nails dug for claws. Her blind spot I think when you were small. No you're better. No you are, turned her good eyes blind.

4

Whose is that car? Do you see it she said, parking at the gate? Oh God let it not be the PP and the state of the place. Who's that now? Don't pull the curtain back. No it isn't. Well he's coming up the path. Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph. Go wipe your nose you.

Daddy. I didn't recognize you. You gave me the fright of my life. I didn't know who it was at all. Is the car different? I thought that. Surely you didn't do all that drive today? Sacred hour. It's a terrible long old journey. Come in God and sit down. Anyways you're looking well.

That's it. Is Mammy with you? Ah no of course. Ach she's not able. She said that alright before. And can the doctor not give her something, just to relieve her a bit? You must be worn out. Will you have a cup of tea?

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