Reviews – May We Be Forgiven, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, A Spell of Winter

The Reading Women Challenge encourages you to explore women’s writing, reading each previous winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Find out more here.

This month I read books gathered by the theme of ‘siblings.’ Despite a variety of narrative techniques, each book was quite similar in how unsettling it was. All of them deal with the relationship with parents as an extension of sibling ties, and also themes of death and remaking oneself. Sexuality is also a repeated theme in all three books, albeit in different ways.


May We Be Forgiven – A. M. Homes (2013 winner)

Synopsis: Harry is a Richard Nixon scholar who leads a quiet, regular life; his brother George is a high-flying TV producer, with a murderous temper. They have been uneasy rivals since childhood. Then one day George loses control so extravagantly that he precipitates Harry into an entirely new life.

Publisher: Granta Books
Pages: 496

One of the biggest surprises of this book is that it is humorous. The catalyst for change is a series of deaths, but the dry tone of the narrator, coupled with his adventitious outlook on life, makes the story quite easy to read (even when he is waxing poetic about President Nixon). The latter subject permeates the story in various ways, paralleling the protagonist’s life, although I will admit I did space out sometimes at the intricacies of Nixon’s history.

The sibling relationship here is really different to the other two books – primarily because it’s told from the POV of the older brother but one who was, before the events of this book, slightly less successful. To be fair the ‘success’ is subjective, but the point is that Harry (whose name I often forget, which I think goes to show the little impact he has on the world), is not fond of his life. After the murders he essentially takes his younger brother’s place – moving into his house, caring for his children, managing his money, even taking care of his pets. He essentially takes on George’s life and identity, including wearing his clothes and taking the medication he finds in George’s bathroom, bringing into question how different the siblings are. For example, the brothers suffer from an illness at the same time, they love the same woman (😬) they also share a history that is only revealed in bits and pieces, letting us know we as readers are on the outside of this family.

Another difference between this sibling relationship and the other two is the others are quite self-enclosed. In this book there are responsibilities that exist outside of the sibling relationship and this takes the story in a different way. It’s about Harry finding himself through taking charge of his brother’s life, a slice of suburban America slightly to the right, which is quite an interesting premise.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride (2014 winner)

Synopsis: The story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. 

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 224

This is quite a difficult book to read. It is told from the perspective of the younger sister in a stream of consciousness style – even grammatically. Added to that the Irish slang that is peppered throughout and it can be hard to parse what is going on at the beginning, but you do become used to it as the story goes on. It’s pretty imperative to the impact of the story, and how the narrator’s story unfolds.

It isn’t an easy read, but this is literary fiction, which is meant to break new boundaries in lit and find new ways of telling stories. I’d argue no book on this list is an easy read, this one is just more visibly extreme! I definitely did not take the time to read this as thoroughly I probably should have. Similarly to Fugitive Pieces, this requires you to involve yourself in it fully. But also because the sentences are so fragmentary, I read it pretty quick. The story is in stops and starts and I felt like my reading emulated that.

Everyone is nameless in this book and that’s important. You begin to recognise who is meant by “she” and “him.” “You” is always the narrator’s brother – making him an integral part of herself, which, of course, has consequences. The story begins with his suffering cancer as a child, and this affects the boy his whole life, and therefore also his sister. She is an unreliable narrator. Technically, the story follows a relatively simple plot: she goes to school, then university, then returns home. But both the sentence structure that gives us half-formed thoughts and the nature of events that occur make it important to differentiate between what is truth and what the narrator is convincing herself of.

A large part of this story is about sexual assault. It’s quite difficult to read, especially because the narrator does not make any distinction between assault and sex she freely engages in. Both of these are parts of the identity the narrator attempts to create for herself, which she cannot find with her emotionally distant mother or her older brother, who she slowly overtakes, leaving him behind in their mother’s house and taking care of him in illness. This switch in responsibility is stark: “where I am going you cannot follow.” Abruptly, her brother becomes “young,” and as she finds herself feeling like the older sibling their situations reverse. But they are still intertwined. They are accountable to each other – “forgive me brother for I have sinned” – and the narrator would rather cling to this while she rejects the Christianity her mother wants her to have. This is employed by the mother in a way which makes the daughter constantly call herself ‘bad,’ in incredibly childlike language that shows the extent to which she internalises this point of view her whole life.

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore (1996 winner)

Synopsis: Cathy and her brother, Rob, don’t know why they have been abandoned by their parents. Alone in their grandfather’s decaying country house, they roam the wild grounds freely with minds attuned to the rural wilderness. Lost in their own private world, they seek and find new lines to cross.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 320

This book is set just before WW1. It is told from the perspective of Cathy, living with her brother and a maid in their grandfather’s house. Their father is in a hospital and their mother is gone, but both of their impact on the siblings lives on. The story is told in the past tense, which echoes Cathy’s mindset: she is stuck. She describes herself as akin to winter because she would rather nothing change. She enjoys the idea of the past but recognises the futility of this: “the past was not something we could live in because it had nothing to do with life.”

I was not the biggest fan of this book. I found the mix between present tense narration and past tense recounting jarring at times. Also, the relationship between Cathy and Rob is sexual for a part of this book, and I do not particularly enjoy reading about incest. The lyrical quality of Dunmore’s writing is quite readily apparent however, with prose that flows easily and often feels poetic.

This month’s books really showed me the value of reading novels that have won literary prizes, as I don’t believe I would have picked any of these up were I not doing this challenge.

Next month I plan to read books based on a theme of immigration.

Here’s what I’ll be reading:

The Road Home – Rose Tremain (2008 winner)

Small Island – Andrea Levy (2004 winner)

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver (2010 winner)

Check out my Reading Women Challenge reviews for June and follow my blog to be notified when I post the next review!

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