‘Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ Book a triumph of style, and a heartbreaking tale

A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING. By Eimear McBride. Coffee House Press. 227 pages. $24.

Eimear McBride’s first novel, “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing,” is this year’s breakaway success. A book that McBride wrote nine years ago, in a blistering six months when she was 27 years old, “A Girl” couldn’t then find a publisher willing to take it on. Why? The reasons are obvious: McBride tells a difficult, claustrophobic story, matched by a difficult, fractured style, unrelieved by humor.

Yet, in 2014, readers and prize-judging panels embraced its raw energy. It’s not giving much away to say that “A Girl” withholds the sweetening that is a traditional payoff for suffering. McBride is brave enough to drag us into a nonprogressive story that resists consolation. The briefest summary of McBride’s plot might double for its perspective on life: Love and pain co-exist from beginning to end, and nobody learns much from either.

Voice is everything in “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.” McBride’s speaker is the title’s Girl, never named. She begins speaking on page one from her mother’s womb and doesn’t stop. The novel is a triumph of style. The Girl skirts the rigors of traditional grammar and syntax, excising the extras (prepositions, qualifiers, articles, tense) and leaving us a telegraphic communique that gets to the nub of feeling.

Before she’s born, the narrator listens in on “doctor chat” about her brother: “We done the best we could. There really wasn’t much. It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees. Sorry. ... He’s running out I’m afraid. ... You should take him home, enjoy him while you can.”

The “girleen,” when she’s born on page three, is inducted into the family’s central trauma. Her brother, always “you,” has a brain tumor. After the operation, he goes into a long remission, but the “little beast in his brainstem” (“nasty thing, having a chew”) never lets up. He stammers; one leg drags; he can’t do sums. There’s talk of “handicap school.”

While the girl’s brother is at the mercy of every teacher with a red pen and every doctor with a chart, she turns her own life into an insurrection. Even as a young child, she admits, “I couldn’t bide the loud do not.” Living in the damp Irish countryside, she hears “things crying in the fields for me.” The girl’s wildness burns through all the shopworn pieties of the Irish novel: priests and prayer circles, secret sex, dirty uncles, drink, degradation.

At 13 (and early in the book), a visiting uncle rapes her (“But I am happy satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now... I am something else. I am. Going to the bad. To the somewhere new”). What’s new and what’s next, she wonders.

Fooling around behind the prefabs at school becomes what the girl considers her best work. At college, the stakes are higher and the protections — such as they are — even flimsier. Another writer might have mined McBride’s material for its sociological or psychological implications, for the girl is certainly a victim of forces she can’t or won’t name. But that hardly seems to matter. She is done to, but she is also a loud and imaginative doer. McBride’s Girl fully inhabits her life and revolts rigorously — with her body and her words — against niceness (“Nice is not what I am after”).

McBride tells a bracing story that is also a heartbreaking, painful thing to read. As the girl’s father said on his way out the door, “The heart cannot be wrung and wrung.” McBride and her Girl beg to differ.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.