Book Reviews

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Cover from Amazon

I finished my monthly book this go around, with a couple days to spare. I don’t even remember where I heard about this book, but I’m sure it had something to do with a LitReactor reading list or article. It’s been a part of my “to be read” pile for a long time now, and I have to offer my sincerest apologies to Eimear McBride for not reading her novel sooner.

The basic story (without giving up important pieces) is about a girl and her relationship with her brother who survived a childhood brain tumor. Their growing up, their ups and downs, and how her relationship with her brother affects everything else in her life. There are no formal names, just Mammy, you (almost always referring to her brother), uncle, aunt, etc.

It was a hard read for two reasons–first, the subject matter isn’t all that pleasant. But that’s also one of the reasons it’s such a good read so I’m certainly not wanting anyone to avoid the book because it’s not a happy story. Happy stories suck. To get through to real emotions and growth, we need to be made uncomfortable and this book does so exceedingly well.

Second, the format of the book is a sort of stream of consciousness from the mind of the sister. There are no complete sentences, let alone totally complete thoughts so it takes some time to get used to the structure.  Since there are times where I only get 5-15 minutes to read, it took me probably more time to read and truly understand than had I been able to read it through uninterrupted. Again, NOT a reason to avoid the book. In fact, I would make it yet another reason to seek it out because I’ve never read anything quite like it… and that’s hard to say these days.

To read A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is to admit the possibility of having a sibling  with a disability can have detrimental effects on the “normal” sibling. Her brother surviving his brain tumor as a child turned their mother into a bit of a fanatic–he catered to him in every way, her miracle child and the sister was left to take the role of the black sheep. As a child, the sister didn’t feel the resentment, but it grows as her father (who’d abandoned them after the brother’s tumor) dies in her early teens.

I don’t want to give away some of the more dramatic pieces of the novel, but the sister learns to play the part she’d been given very well. She’s bad for the sake of being bad; she’s rebellious because her mother needs balance to her brother’s constant care needs. Her mother is determined to be a martyr, hide behind religion, and pretend she’s so disappointed by her daughter’s outlandish behavior (or oblivious to it) that she has to give her tough love to turn it all around. Really, the mother is thriving on it all. She gets to play this sad victim–her husband abandoned her because of a sick child, her oldest son is suffering, and her daughter refuses to live a good, Christian life even though that’s all her mother wants. It’s torturous to read as a mom, that anyone would manipulate their own children like that–but the reality is that it happens every day.

The relationship between the sister and brother changes from her viewing him as idol, to equal, to inferior, and finally back to idol. But the genuine love is always there, whether the sister wants to admit it or not. As much as she tries to get away to create her own misguided life, she always comes back to him when he needs her. The sweetest and happiest parts of the book are wrapped in tragedy because of the dynamic between these two.

After I finished the book, my husband asked me how I liked it. When I gave him more details, he asked why I wanted to read something so sad. My original answer was that it’s beautifully written and I stand by that. But there’s something more. We all struggle with circumstances that flat out suck–some more than others. And some will face greater obstacles than others. Some will get lucky where others will suffer for no reason other than bad luck. The randomness of it seems almost cruel, but there’s solace in knowing that you’re not alone in your suffering. The sister’s eventual understanding of this idea is what made the story beautiful. Yes, she suffered but her brother suffered, too. Their struggles were different, but the ultimate realization that having someone to rely on, even in an unconventional way, is a win for the human spirit. Acceptance is another.

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