A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.

This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.

The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.

Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.

But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”

“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.

Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.

The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.

All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.

Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.

White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.

Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”

The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Before They Were Notable: 2014

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Year In Reading: Anthony Doerr)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel (Character Assassin: An Interview with Hilary Mantel)
Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore (Is She Writing About Me?: A Profile of Lorrie Moore)
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Guerilla Grandma: On Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (In the Edges of the Maps: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, ‘The Blank Screen Is the Enemy’: The Millions Interviews David Mitchell, Exclusive: David Mitchell’s Twitter Story “The Right Sort” Collected)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henríquez (Hug Your Darlings, Give the Moon the Finger: Writers On Delight)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (Aloof, Quiet, and Dissonant: On Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, The Elusive Qualities of Dreams: On Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Strange Library’)
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Are You My Mother? On Maternal Abandonment in Literature)
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Scraps of Prayers: On Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson (In a Toxic Dreamscape: On Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters)
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Art After Tragedy: The Narrow Road to the Deep North)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (More Alive and Much Stranger: On Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase)
10:04 by Ben Lerner (Only Disconnect: Ben Lerner’s 10:04)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (This Could Be Your Story: On Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves)

A Year in Reading: 2014

This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year’s best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a “best of” list would not have been true to the reading I did that year.

Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year’s best memories. It always feels like we’ve hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year.

And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers.

For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.
Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin.
Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink.
Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship.
Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander.
John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth.
Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Ben Lerner, author of 10:04.
Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven.
Tana French, author of Broken Harbor.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase.
Philipp Meyer, author of The Son.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite.
Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On.
Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories.
Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls.
Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names.
Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman.
Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman.
Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House.
Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion.
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer.
Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.
Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers.
Ron Rash, author of Serena.
Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair.
Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle.
Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans.
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth.
Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning.
William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters.
Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex.
Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments.
A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Revel in the Disorderly

“The only way to get something new out of language, to try and get to what feels like the nearest simulacrum of truth, is to bend and shape that language, to break it’s form and strain against it, to coax it into a shape, to play with it. To revel in the disorderly.” Madeleine Watts writes about Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (which our own Hannah Gersen recently reviewed), the limits of language and the necessity of a “Girl Canon” for The Believer’s blog.

Scraps of Prayers: On Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

The first thing you may hear about Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, is that it took nine years to find a publisher. The second is that it is brilliant, the winner of multiple literary prizes, and that McBride is, as Anne Enright put it in a 2013 review, “that old-fashioned thing, a genius.” First published in the U.K. by a small independent publisher, Galley Beggar, in 2013, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has finally made it to America thanks to another small independent publisher, Coffee House Press.

There is undeniable romance to the misunderstood genius narrative, but I have to admit that the first thing I thought when I began this bracing, unrelenting, and audacious novel was that I could understand why it took almost a decade to find an editor. From page one it’s a tough read, both in terms of subject matter and style. Here’s the novel’s third paragraph, in which the novel’s unnamed narrator, at this point an infant in utero, describes the illness that has befallen her older brother:

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 feels the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.

A few broken sentences later, we get the diagnosis: “It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees.”

I don’t mean to sound glib, but from here, things only get worse. To give a brief, vague summary, this book is about a girl born into a diseased situation — literally and metaphorically — and how she uses her sexuality to cope with it. The sentences remain broken and inarticulate throughout the novel, even after the narrator is born, grows up, and comes of age. This novel does not shy away from the world’s cruelty. There were times when I had to look away from the page despite the opaque-ness of the prose. There were times when I was worried for the physical well being of the narrator. There were times when I had to disengage from the story, because the scenes of abuse and violence were too harsh. It’s not the kind of book that makes you cry; it’s the kind of book that shakes you up. While reading this novel, I had several dreams about terrible things happening to my son. Yes, this book actually gave me nightmares. And yet I did not want to stop reading it.

I finished this book a couple days ago and I wanted to write about it immediately, to capture my visceral response. Still, just a few days away from it has given me a chance to wonder, from a calmer place, what is it about this terrifying book that held my attention. The prose, while arresting and utterly unique, is slightly repellant. If I re-read a sentence, it was often to figure out what was happening — although I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted to the novel’s fragmented style. I quickly began to appreciate how much information McBride was available to convey in her short, snapshot paragraphs. In this scene, a classic first-day-of-school scenario is rendered completely new by McBride’s breakneck prose:

I be new girl. I could wish to be dead but for the wrong of it. To have to be saying again again where I come from. Who I am. And I’m from someplace so much littler than this. That redneck culchie. Backward. Farmyard. I am all these things to the great girl face. Those herd. Such bovine swinging heifers. Come don’t hate me. All your walkmans fizz in tune, in time with conversation, point graffitis on the bus, love this one that one. New girl stinks.

Here’s another schoolyard scene, in which the narrator’s brother, who has survived brain cancer but is left with scars, lies to a group of older boys about their origins:

You say, and shock me, a knife did it. Silence. For the first time impressed. They cannot delve you all a sudden.

It’s the word “delve” that brought me up short. It suggests a shovel, a blunt instrument, and the blunt way these bullies are trying to get at the source of her brother’s pain, which is on the surface for everyone to see. “Delve” also has an echo of playground rhymes: one, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door…eleven, twelve, dig and delve. There is also something striking about “a knife did it.” The phrase is eerie, a reminder of all the surgeries (“going under the knife”) the brother has undergone.

In yet another scene of schoolyard brutality, the brother is unable to defend himself:

Bulged indignated. The bullish face fat with humiliation. Handicap. Handicap. One from the back gets the ball. Kicks and aims. It strikes your face. Bleared with mud. And knock you over. Laughter. Laughter. Never ever will it stop. Not ever again. The bell rings and release for you from that place.

“Indignated,” “bleared,” “release for you” — these word are at their root, the right words, but are jammed to fit the experience, like sawed-off puzzle pieces. Never mind if they’re in the right tense, never mind if they are paired with the right pronouns (or any pronoun), never mind if they are even being deployed correctly. There is no precision in this narrator’s world. No steadiness. Only movement and feeling.

Bits of familiar language seep through. Not familiar in the sense of slang or cliché, but bones-of-the-English-language familiar, half-scraps of Shakespeare and Milton, and the King James Bible, too. The narrator’s mother is deeply, ruthlessly religious, and at once point McBride simply writes the Lord’s Prayer as a single paragraph, a scrap of prayer wedged between two paragraphs seared with the guilt of sexual abuse. It’s striking how well the prayer fits, the words written in one headlong sentence without commas or a breath taken, just the way the narrator would say it.

I could go on about McBride’s prose, but ultimately I don’t think that’s why I kept reading this book. Nor was I compelled by the horror of the story. I had deep sympathy for the narrator, but it was complicated by the narrator’s intensely self-destructive behavior. It’s hard to spend time with someone who is so hell-bent on suffering, who rejects friendship, tenderness, comfort, laughter. But I realized that she does not reject love. The problem is she is so rarely offered it. In the wake of her brother’s illness, her parents have nothing in reserve for her. As a young woman, her uncle sexually abuses her. She’s capable of deep friendships with other women, but she is so full of self-loathing that she runs away from anyone who truly cares. Her brother is the only person she loves unconditionally and who is able to give her that love in return. “I swim to your touch” — that’s the narrator, in utero, already more attuned to her brother’s presence than anyone else in the world, including her mother. 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 Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is already a literary sensation, the recipient of numerous awards, including the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), for which she competed against several highly-lauded novels, including Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I haven’t read The Goldfinch, but I have read The Lowland and Americanah, and while I have affection for those novels, especially Americanah, they didn’t startle me the way McBride’s debut did. There is something so desperate and prayerful about this book, something so burned-out and raw, that it’s hard to simply recommend. I can only say that it was worth reading, and that I’m grateful that it finally found its publishers.

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