A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is about an unnamed girl’s life from birth to about twenty in rural Ireland, her relationship with her brother who had a brain tumour when he was very young, her mother, religion, sex, and sense of self.
It’s written in a fragmented, fractured way – half-sentences, with strange grammar and syntax. Told from the perspective of the girl (with her brother as the ‘you’ she is talking to), you see the world from inside her head.
I found that, on their own, single sentences, or even groups of sentences, made little sense. But, if I just read it, it became comprehensible, like reading a very heavy dialect in a language you know. It helps that, although there aren’t any speech marks, all the speech she hears is in full sentences, which gives a kind of occasional lucidity and helps the story to flow. This is a book to read in as few sittings as possible – it’s not one for grabbing five minutes here or there. I had a gap of a few days in the middle when I was too ill to read, and struggled to get back into it again for a couple of slow pages. But if you carve out the time for it, it will make sense.
Here are a few lines to give you an idea (from the second page, after the brother’s tumour has been treated):
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.
But there are also more difficult bits like this (the opening):
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.
There were places where I felt irritated by the style, but I wonder whether that’s more about a slight patchiness in the shape of a debut novel.
It’s a bleak book – it feels like the fractured style reflects the girl’s fractured sense of self, or, at least, confidence in her sense of self. It’s like she’s trying to hold it together but is constantly on the cusp of falling apart. Her mother is extremely religious, ranting and punishing. She has an uncomfortable relationship with her uncle, and seeks random partners for sex as a comforter, escape and release, but also often as a way of punishing herself – to prove she is the wrong, dirty thing she is sometimes led to believe.
At the heart of this book in which bad things happen is the relationship between a girl and her brother. They aren’t always close; they go through years in which they barely speak and lead very different lives in their teens. But it feels like a good thing they can both hold on to. You spend a lot of the book wondering when, and not if, it’s going to be taken away from them.
It’s not going to be for everyone, but carve out a quiet space for this novel and it will be worth it.