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.

The original location of Foyles bookshop

The original location of Foyles bookshop

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.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEimear McBride
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Eimear McBride has that rare writer’s talent for breaking language and grammar down to use them for her own purposes. The story of an Irish girl coming of age in a strict Catholic setting is a familiar one, but the way the author tells it gives a fresh visceral understanding of the experience. The narrative is compact and clustered together with a bare minimum given to setting the scene so thoughts and dialogue are balled up as tightly as a clenched fist. However, the words sound out sharp and clear so that if you read it carefully you always know exactly where you are located, who is speaking and what is happening. The writing in “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” is unlike any that has come before. At times it feels like a Beckett play with disconsolate Irish voices ringing out in a tumultuous stream. It can also at points invoke the kind of subterranean speech used in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” where dialogue is neither what’s being said in reality nor is it what is consciously going through the characters’ minds, but it’s impressionistic and poetic thought welling up from the inside. However, the experience of reading this striking, accomplished first novel isn’t wholly like either of these examples. McBride establishes her own unique voice which adheres to a particular set of rules and logic set by the author.

It takes time to get into the rhythm of the story as sentences come across as so fractured and disjointed. “We are bad her. She and me. My friend I’d call.” Yet, once you get into the rhythm of the unnamed narrator’s voice it takes on a special complex meaning which would be impossible to get from a traditionally narrated novel. When I was reading this book home alone I found it helpful to read it out aloud. Maybe it’s a quality of Irish writing that when the words are spoken aloud the musicality and intent of it comes through in a way that is so much more meaningful and different from simply silently reading the text. Or perhaps there are such powerful character voices cutting through the text that they can be naturally transformed into a theatrical monologue. For instance try reading these few lines silently and then say them out loud: “And my head is good for secrets. I can bang it on the wall. It takes the nervous out and no one bothers for it at all.” Doesn’t the meaning subtly develop and change? If nothing else, it allows you to appreciate how unusually beautiful the writing is. Whether you choose to read part or all of this book aloud yourself is up to you, but I’d recommend trying it.

McBride’s narrator describes her intense close relationship with her sick brother, the traumatic experience of living through puberty and becoming sexually aware through her first adolescent experience with an uncle and later with boys at school. I was particularly struck by this unapologetically blunt passage where she asserts that her sexual promiscuity gives her control: “And in a car the best. Warm and parked away. They’ll do what they can to me in here. On my knees I learn plenty – there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do.” This at once asserts her right to express her sexual attraction to boys/men and cuts them down for not being particularly imaginative in their physical abilities. Later her opinion on this is modified as she matures and develops more complex sexual relationships.

Unsurprisingly, the narrator establishes herself as fiercely intelligent and unique from those around her in her provincial Irish town. The people here mark her out as different. For instance they mock her passion for reading: “God how can you read books at all? Look at that three hundred pages an awful lot to read.” She moves on to higher education and establishes her independence away from her family. “Look around. What if. I could. I could make. A whole other world a whole civilisation in this this city that is not home? The heresy of it. But I can. And I can choose this. Shafts of sun. Life that is this. And I can. Laugh at it because the world goes on. And no one cares. And no one’s falling into hell.” This beautifully sums up asserting ones own place in the world and breaking out of the rules (Catholic, social and otherwise) that one has been governed by in life thus far. She cuts herself off from her past and the people she’s known with a terrifying severity: “I will not think of your feelings anymore. For it’s a bit too much to know.” For a time it seems as if she will leave behind her town and family for good, but when there are developments in her family she must return. Here the mettle of her new identity is tested against the strictures of her upbringing. She must piece herself together anew and reconcile the multifaceted aspects of her life.

This novel is at times deadly serious as the narrator is defiant, but wracked with guilt and grief. “I am. Such a mess of blood and shame.” However, it is also fantastically funny and witty. Certain passages ring out as wickedly hilarious especially when she sticks two fingers up in the face of religion. “We heard of you and know you’ll want to hear the good good news. Oh whatsit? Jesus loves you. Right enough and so and is there some more better news than that?” Her blunt dismissal and anger about religion comes naturally out of being raised in such a restrictive environment that hasn’t allowed her to develop openly in the way she’d like. This raises a lot of humour and intensely personal emotion. As the novel progresses and the narrator reaches an emotionally intense point the text cripples under the weight of her life and becomes increasingly fragmented. The tension reached a point where I felt like I could barely breathe.

McBride has written a novel so fresh and individual it will be fascinating to see what she might produce next. I’m sure some people will find it tough to get into the highly stylized narrative, but once I got into the flow of it I was engulfed in and fell in love with the voice. It apparently took the author nine years to find a publisher for the book. I can only be thankful she persevered in getting it published and that Galley Beggar Press realized that this is a fantastically original voice which needs to be heard.

Listen to a brilliant interview with the author from You Wrote the Book: