The new Folio Prize is designed to be a Booker killer. Apparently fed up with the fact that one judge said one year she was looking for a book that was readable as well as literary, a group of authors have come together to create ‘real’ literature prize. It’s a big call, and when you put together a shortlist for your first prize, you have to make sure you get it right. So does this debut Irish novel make the cut?
It seems faintly reductive (and truistic) to suggest that I’ve read nothing like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Others have compared it to Joyce, but since I am sadly lacking in that area, I couldn’t possibly comment. What I can tell you, though, is every time I offered the first page to a friend, they looked at me like I’d gone nuts. There is no question that that first page is intimidating—short sentences, irregular punctuation, and a collection of words that, at first glance, don’t seem to belong together.
But as you continue to read, and as you become accustomed to McBride’s rhythms, you cannot help but be drawn in by this unique style. It seems almost obscene that a writer this young should be able to so masterfully manipulate the English language. Though there are moments of ambiguity, they are deliberate—designed, perhaps, to confuse the reader and evoke in them the same confusion felt by the main character. It’s the same confusion any adolescent or young adult feels as they become a fully-fledged adult, allowed to make their own decisions, coming up against the wall of societal expectations that prevent them from making those exact same decisions.
This structure and construction, then, feed into what McBride is trying to talk about. The three relationships that make up the backbone of the novel are fully-formed, fleshed-out slices of reality: from the conservative Catholic mum who can’t stand the fact that her daughter enjoys sex, to her older, mentally-ill older brother, to the uncle she sees as more than just an uncle. Each one is confusing and hard to categorise easily, just like all familial relationships, and McBride teases out the intricacies of each one to highlight the fact that no one is always good or always bad. (Though the uncle comes pretty close.)
Of course, what is wrapped up most in growing up and coming to terms with societal restrictions is sexuality, particularly female sexuality. Growing up in conservative Ireland and being a teenager (and later, young woman) who enjoys sex puts the protagonist in a position that sees her judged for her lifestyle, even by those closest to her. Her mother yells and screams at her for not being pure, while her teenage brother, in a fit of rage, does the same thing.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book you need to read. There can be no question that is not, perhaps, the most ‘readable’ of all novels, but though experimental in its structure construction, McBride does not forget that ‘real’ literature is not about showing off with tricksy, literary fireworks, but about believable people trying to make sense of the world around them.