I can still vividly remember the experience of reading Eimear McBride’s astounding debut “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing”. I was so confused initially and then utterly enthralled by its innovative voice. It plays with language and sentence structures so radically it takes a while to catch on to the level of narrative and, in fact, it helps to read the text aloud to catch the rhythm of what McBride is doing.
Her much-anticipated follow up “The Lesser Bohemians” begins in exactly the same way. For the first forty pages I was befuddled and had to read carefully to follow all the possible meaning McBride packs into her phrasing. Then my reading pace really picked up because I grew accustomed to McBride’s unique writing and got really stuck into the story of 18 year-old Eily who moves from Ireland to London in 1994 to study acting and work as a performer. She becomes enamoured with actor Stephen who is twice her age and they embark on a tumultuous and heated love affair. This is a first love story devoid of sentimentality. Instead, what McBride conveys is the complex intensity, raw passion and emotionally transformative experience of a relationship.
It’s easy to trip up on McBride’s prose style, but it has a poetic beauty and if you take the time to unpack all that she’s saying it’s extremely rewarding. Take for instance this line about how the protagonist finds herself silenced in a social situation because of nerves: “I wish that I was someone else, a girl with words behind her face, not this one done up like a stone in herself.” It’s a really emotionally-charged way of describing common feelings of introversion. There is a lot in each sentence because, not only does McBride capture in her writing what her characters are thinking, but how they think and the experience of thought combined with action filtered through a particular sensibility.
It’s interesting how only the sections from Eily’s perspective use McBride’s quick-paced prose style, but partway through the novel we’re given Stephen’s narrative about his past as he tells it to Eily during an emotional night. The language of his extended confession about his past is written in a much more straightforward way. This comes as a relief in some ways because his back story is so complicated and unsettling I was glad it was written out clearly. Not since reading “A Little Life” have I read such a moving account of a boy’s abuse and the damaging way it affects his entire life. Stephen describes the complicate feelings which accompany his participation in being sexually abused: “wondering if the real truth was that I’d enjoyed or invited it because physically I did… and once that happens it’s like you’re implicated, like you’re an accomplice somehow.” This gets to the core of how some abuse can engender a wall of silence around it. It’s also interesting how his experiences play against Eily’s own troubled childhood which we only find out about in cryptic pieces from her recollections and exchanges with Stephen.
Balanced with the darker aspects of the story are lighter anecdotes which centre around the theatre scene of mid-90s London. She memorably evokes the landscape and social atmosphere of the time. I particularly liked a description of the old-style Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road (which has since been closed and moved down the road to a chic modern version of the bookstore). She notes how there is “No kissing in Foyles… I Anthony Burgess over my mouth.” These descriptions which convey both the comic action of their romantic encounter in the bookstore juxtaposed with the pretention of the literary allusions for this precocious theatre student made me chuckle.
Most of all “The Lesser Bohemians” so powerfully evokes a heart wrenching sense of the absolute all-consuming tumult caused by a difficult love affair. It feels emotionally honest and represents the interplay between sex and fantasy unlike any other account I’ve read before. She shows how strongly our past plays into our relationships. When reading about people’s hectic affairs it can sometimes grow tedious because (from the outside) it all feels a bit dull. But McBride’s prose are ideally suited to conveying the real physical excitement and crushing despair that her protagonist feels. So when reading a line such as “Cannot bear to think of him. OR sit amid the lost teeth look of my room.” I felt like I was fully with her and shared in her sense of anger/pain/desolation. This is a spectacularly accomplished novel that ineluctably draws you into the life and breath of its characters.