I decided to read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing mostly out of a sense of curiosity. I admit that I was sceptical; I was nervous of form outstripping sense and becoming a gimmick. It seemed to me that a book that decides to tackle inner-narrative in a Finnegan’s Wake make language new way, could be only one of two things: a publisher’s attempt to claim literary ground, or a truly interesting and engaging novel. I’m delighted to say that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is definitely the later. Suddenly stories of it taking nine years for the book to be published make sense.
This isn’t a novel for those looking for an easy read. This is a book that disjoints language and hones new turns of phrase. Our unnamed narrator tells us her story from the womb onwards, and though disjointed language is expected from a baby, I did expect a more pronounced shift towards conventionally constructed narrative as she grew older. Though the language did not shift in the way I expected, I felt better able to navigate it as the novel progressed and was delightfully struck by the novelty of phrasing this rendering of consciousness allowed. Despite the difficult subject matter, of a brother’s illness and disability, a father’s desertion, a mother’s anger and an uncle’s abuse, the narrator’s story is quite literally beautifully told. For example, when her uncle starts his harassment with awkward questions, asking if she believes in hell, her response makes clear that difficult flood of confusion and gratitude that flows from his attention: ‘Blood swirl and swirl. My thud cheeks up.’ Lovely conflations of thought, feeling and word fill the world of the book and though they create an intensity not all readers will enjoy, I couldn’t get enough of them.
This linguistic playground feels fresh but in truth, A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing is only a pioneering novel if you haven’t read William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison or Marie Darrieussecq or Elfriede Jelinek or Zeruya Shalev. But the beauty of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is that it tries to take the representation of our inner-narrative flow even further, reworking the intense story of sexual mania, where a woman seeks to be sexually assaulted, violently abused in order to drown out a sense of her own worthlessness, in order to feel full of something even if it ends up being shame. Unsurprisingly we hear the echo of her early words: ‘Our empty spaces where fathers should be. Whenabouts we might find them and what we’d do to fill them up.’
If it weren’t for my desire to hear more of the language, I might have been frustrated with some of the plot turns. Even the narrator is aware that her own pain is common, that many others suffer in life, but the self-awareness is fleeting and though we can see that she isn’t selfish, that her desire to be dragged through the mud in name and reality to return to her cancer-struck home beaten and dishevelled is more than, but also a justified, call for her mother’s attention, her endless return to self-destruction is frustrating. In one way, this shows how involved we become in the narrator’s life; such behaviour would be frustrating from friends and relatives in real life. When the novel ends – and I won’t entirely give it away – I am disappointed. For me, there are confrontations the protagonist has yet to face and these possible confrontations might leave me less frustrated. The ending feels too easy.
However, these are the quibbles of a reader with a book that is thoroughly stimulating. How often do you reach the end of a novel and want to reread it? This is the sort of writing we should be encouraging and endorsing: brave, intelligent, unrelenting. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a deserving winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2013 and hopefully will find itself on more than the Folio Prize shortlist this year.
Next week, I’ll be reading Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin, followed by The Machine by James Smythe, short-listed for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Suggestions for following weeks would be very welcome.