Coffee House Press
227 Pages; Print, $24.00
The bildungsroman is a stubborn fixture of Irish literature. It is the-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-elephant-in-the-room that plants itself between us. And, it is the form selected by Eimar McBride for her debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which tells the story of a girl’s coming of age in an environment of violence—violence that is familial, sexual, religious and inward.
If we want to (or rather, because we must), we can draw a straight line from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) to, for instance, Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (1966) to, now, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. But I wouldn’t be trying to talk to you, despite the elephant between us, if this were just another “Irish” bildungsroman. No, there is a sense of urgency pushing through the novel’s half-formed sentences, a frustration in the prose itself vindicates the novel and breathes life into an otherwise tired form.
After all, it’s hard to deny that the form of the Irish bildungsroman is a tired one, with its recognizable conventions and insistently redundant conflicts (although, to be fair, the same could be said for any genre, really—nothing new under the sun). But what makes McBride’s debut novel so refreshing is its awareness of the conventions it is playing with and against. McBride elegantly and daringly runs the risk of cliché at every turn: thinking again of Joyce and Deane, for example, McBride’s blasphemous, rebellious, and artistic protagonist smacks heavily of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and characters like the very Catholic grandfather feel as though they might’ve walked right out of Reading in the Dark and right into Half-Formed Thing. And the lack of clarity with respect to where and when we are most of the time makes it easy to superimpose any one of the novel’s literary predecessors onto the text; if it weren’t for the occasional Walkman or Gameboy reference, I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn the page and start reading about the Troubles and Bloody Sunday.
And so the risk run by McBride is the novel might fall obliviously into the traps set by the conventions of its genre—the very traps toward which the novel unflinchingly steers us. But it’s that same unflinching spirit that ultimately saves the novel, prohibiting us from calling it “just another Irish bildungsroman.” The novel steers us dead into those traps and relishes in its ability to do so while still keeping us invested, while still moving us and even surprising us.
The momentum of Half-Formed Thing is provided, for the most part, by its highly dramatic scenes; in those scenes, we plummet into the mire of genre convention, and then the novel rubs our noses in that mire. Yes, there are many moments in the text where the voice becomes much slipperier, stranger, and the content more difficult to pin down. But these moments usually occur between scenes of alarming clarity, in spite of the fractured prose.
We are not invited to linger in any given scene, nor are we encouraged to play around in a space carved out for us by the text—the scenes strangle us. We are lectured incessantly by the Catholic grandfather; we are forced to watch and feel the confusion of a harsh sexual encounter with the uncle; we are stuck, as we watch the mental health of the brother deteriorate and deteriorate. We are compelled to confront the conventions of the Irish bildungsroman head on and for as long as possible—themes like Catholicism and the psychology of the Irish family are ruts to get stuck in, and the novel tells us that we are going to be stuck, and we’re going to like it.
The experience of reading this novel is harrowing and often emotionally exhausting. And when we finally do break out of the death grip of...