Friday Book Design Blog: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

Jonathan Gibbs

I love the new cover for Eimear McBride’s Bailey’s-winning – and Goldsmith’s-winning and Kerry Group Irish Novel-winning – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. This is the mass market paperback, from Faber, following its first publication by tiny Norwich indie Galley Beggar Press (who are, full disclosure, my publisher also). But I think it does a brilliant job of representing a remarkable and challenging book without selling it short.

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing Friday Book Design Blog: A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

With its fractured syntax leaping at you from the first page, McBride’s book is on the face of it a hard read, but is actually far easier than you’d think, once you immerse yourself in its flow of ‘pre-cognitive’ language. Its subject matter – a girl growing up in suffocatingly religious rural Ireland, and suffering sexual abuse from a family member – could so easily have led to ‘misery memoir’ stylings, or floaty ‘woman seen from behind walking through cornfield’ pastoralia.

I spoke to Donna Payne, art director at Faber, who talked me through the process of designing the cover:

“Eimear gave me a very open brief with just a couple of pointers on what she wanted to avoid. No images of tough sexualised girls – one such image had accompanied a newspaper article about the book and it felt very wrong and at odds with the complexity of the writing and with ‘the girl’ herself – who is never named, much less described.”

She also said the publishers’ powers-that-be “afforded [her] the rare luxury of designing from the heart with the reader rather than the retailer in mind” – though personally I can’t think of any retailer who’d be disappointed by what she came up with.

First up, the font – rather bizarrely named Lust Slim, Payne tells me – which just about catches the right degree of retro. It’s a modern font, but recalls the early 80s setting of the book. As Payne says, its use was inspired by old Jackie magazines and “cheap makeup packaging”,

I also like the jumbled tumble of the title – or, in fact, not a tumble; it’s more that it seems to be building itself upwards, stacking itself like a tower that just might fall, but also shows resilience and strength, the author’s name acting as a kind of pedestal, keeping it stable.

And, below that, the apple.

Ah, the apple! That most symbolic of foods – it could stand for innocence (the apple the schoolchild offers the teacher) or experience (the one that the serpent pushes Eve’s way). Says Payne:

“The apple as a symbol for femininity is a familiar one. But the way in which the book questions and perverts any traditional notion of what it means to be a girl lead me to look to images of spoiled, over ripe fruit. And also that idea of something beautiful and familiar which is perceived as ‘not quite right’ or ‘perfect enough’ – for me, also described how other people view the girl’s learning disabled brother – a relationship at the very heart of the book and absolutely tied in with her emerging identity.”

It’s not just that the fruit is over-ripe, the bruise of the apple is carried over into the faux water damage to the cover itself – which you could just take as a reference to the damp walls of an old, cold house in the country, or as a nod to the water that pervades the book, especially in the lake so crucial to the plot’s unfolding.

All in all a great cover – and with news that Faber are printing 25,000 additional copies of it following the Bailey’s win – the likelihood is that you’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

But, here I’ve got to say that McBride’s book has been rather well served by its covers before and beyond this one.

AGIAHFT GB 734x1024 Friday Book Design Blog: A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

The original edition, from Norwich’s Galley Beggar Press, follows a strict design template the publisher uses for all their first run books: matt black cover, text-only but for a tiny Galley Beggar imp, with the author name in a spot-colour, and the title and pull quote from the book itself in white and grey. It’s a great look, that harks back to great independent publishers of the last century, and it’s one that absolutely matches the modernist rigour of McBride’s prose. In a way it’s the perfect match.

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing coffe house Friday Book Design Blog: A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

But A Girl is coming out from Coffee House Press in the US, too, and they have taken an equally interesting, equally successful approach to their design. [Late note: In fact this cover is licensed from the Australian edition, for Text Publishing, where the design is by Australian designer W.H. Chong. - JG 20/06/2014] There is something of the Franz Kline about the doodle, also something Japanese. All three covers are admirable responses to a book that could scare readers off and, worse, could scare publishers into not wanting to scare them off, and so betraying the book itself.

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