Rush and you’ll trip: reading The Lesser Bohemians

Eimear McBride's second novel deserves all the success of her first.

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Among the most heartening publishing stories of the past few years is the trajectory of Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. In 2013 the novel became one of the first books published by the tiny independent house Galley Beggar Press, after nine years of rejection letters. It received a couple of dazzled reviews in literary magazines: Adam Mars-Jones in the London Review of Books compared McBride to Joyce and Beckett and looked forward to the day when “this little book is famous”. Fame followed: rapture in the national newspapers and a mantelpiece of awards, from the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, which celebrates innovative fiction, to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, set in ­Ireland, is hard going both for its subject and for its style. Its unnamed narrator is a girl whose brother had a brain tumour as a young child, whose mother is cruel and fanatically religious, and whose uncle sexually abuses her throughout her teenage years. In self-destructive revenge, she has sex with the boys who mock her brother and then, when she moves away for college, with countless faceless men. The brother’s brain tumour returns, this time fatally. All of this is narrated in a stream-of-consciousness style that is nothing like a stream: shattered, truncated and replete with full stops. In an interview she gave in 2014, McBride said she wanted to “tell a story from a point so far back in the mind that it is completely experiential . . . balancing on the moment just before language becomes formatted thought”.

McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, also searches for that moment. Here is its beginning, when the narrator – again a young Irish girl – arrives for the first time in London to audition for drama school: “I move. Cars move. Stock, it bends light. City opening itself behind. Here’s to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.” McBride’s unformatted language is full of compressions and inversions, nouns made into verbs and well-worn phrases torn apart. On the narrator’s fellow drama students: “Laughing and smoking they verve from the start.” On how she stretches the truth to make herself seem more worldly: “I chuck forth an embroider and love my shape in its light.” If you rush McBride’s sentences, you’ll trip, especially when she is recounting conversational exchange: there are no quotation marks, and working out who says what can be tricky. The rewards for adopting a slower pace are linguistic joys and surprises on every page.

The novel contains other kinds of joy and surprise: those of the narrator as she discovers London – the “homesickless new” – and makes a life for herself. She is awkward and nervous, keen to conceal her naivety and virginity, and to learn the rules of aspiring stars: “Don’t wear knickers, always thongs, without a flat stomach all the world is poisoned and no serious actress will ever eat cheese.” But she is also thrilled by what the city has to offer, which in her case sometimes means the theatre and mostly means the pubs and parks of Camden, the location of her drama school. (McBride attended Drama Centre London in the mid-1990s, when this book is set, and when the school was based just north of Camden Town.) The narrator’s sense of excitement and possibility distinguishes her from the withdrawn, desperate narrator of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and informs the novel’s style: it is more relaxed than her debut, with longer sentences balancing the fragments.

The narrator has not been in London long when she meets a successful actor in his late thirties. He takes her back to his bedsit in Chalk Farm (he still lives like a student). He tells her that he has never been in love; she tells him that she has never had sex. They begin an affair that overwhelms them both. There is a lot of sex in this book: sometimes painful and violent, mostly loving and often ecstatic, with McBride equally able to convey physical sensation and emotional intimacy.

Girl and actor are well suited, despite their age gap. But both have traumatic pasts and, as understanding as the actor is about the girl’s anxieties (at her request, he recites Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy the first time she fellates him, to calm her nerves), he is also prone to anger and moodiness and fiercely protective of his past. Until, that is, halfway through the book, when in a 70-page near-monologue he reveals to the girl decades of unimaginable suffering.

Last year, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life drew criticism from readers who felt that it luxuriated in descriptions of misery and abuse. Such readers may baulk at the actor’s narrative in The Lesser Bohemians. Yet McBride doesn’t describe suffering to wallow in it. In the actor’s section, the language and syntax become orderly and conventional, even while he is narrating the most disorderly and unconventional events. The contrast with the rest of the novel shows the terrible limits of communication: our experience of the world looks very different when we have to straighten it out for someone else’s comprehension.

As the narrator prepares to play Juliet in her school’s end-of-year production, she must figure out whether she and he can overcome their pasts and make their story a happier one than Shakespeare’s. Surprisingly for a work of such raw joy and pain, The Lesser Bohemians wraps up a little too neatly. Nevertheless, this extraordinary novel deserves all the success of McBride’s first. 

The Lesser Bohemians  by Eimear McBride is published by Faber & Faber (320pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser