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Eimear McBride: “When you experience grief as a child, death is always really close”

The novelist on grief, politics and the dumbing-down of fiction. 

Eimear McBride does not look back on her childhood with much nostalgia. That’s not to say there weren’t good times – she recalls with palpable pride her time leading friends through imaginary worlds, including the particularly inspired game “Robin Hood With Rabies”. (After all, McBride took the part of Robin Hood With Rabies, the “most dramatic” role.) But the death of her father when she was eight leaves little room for sentimentality. “Once you experience that as a child, you don’t ever go back to feeling wistful,” she tells me. “I suppose that’s why I don’t have time for romantic notions about childhood.”

McBride’s first two novels, the brutal, fractured A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing and the electric love story The Lesser Bohemians, are frank in their depictions of childhood traumas: bereavement, sexual abuse, illness. Speaking in fragmented streams of consciousness, their narrators are girls on the cusp of adulthood, luminous with pain, lust, confusion and want. But Strange Hotel, McBride’s third novel, centres on a nameless woman in her forties as she drifts through a series of anonymous hotel rooms. Though she shows the traces of similarly profound losses, her emotions have cooled. 

Today, 43-year-old McBride sips a cup of tea in the airy conservatory of an almost empty pub near her home in Leytonstone, where she lives with her husband, William, daughter, Éadaoin, and two elderly dachshunds, Myrtle and Cyril. “I do feel as though I still experience the world in the same way that I did as a child,” she says, “but I also know that there are whole layers that experience has to go through now to get to me.”

Her voice echoes slightly, bouncing off the glass. “When you’re older, things still fly at you but they don’t hit as hard, or in the same way,” she says. Everyone understands “the first blush of grief”, but what about “when the terrible thing happens, and you don’t die. And then the next year, you feel a bit less like you might die, or you might want to die, and the year after that, and the year after that… until the pain becomes a thing that is part of you, but is not in control of you any more.”

The protagonist of Strange Hotel is described as: “Not irradiated by pain. Not irradiated now, she’d say, by anything.” It’s a portrait of grief numbed not only by time, but by will. If the kind of character McBride is exploring has matured, the language is different, too. Written in the third person, the short, sharp shocks that characterise her earlier work (Girl begins: “For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name”; Bohemians: “I move. You move. Stock, it bends light”) are replaced by more elevated and grammatically straightforward prose. It opens in a hotel, where “the foyer sags with humidity unleaved by the indoor trees”, as the protagonist looks for maps on matchbooks, “sliding them between the folds of her valise… a complication resolved”. Though we follow her hotel experiences in minute detail, we only build a picture of her life story through glimpses of memories. There are points of continuity between the three novels – if you look out for them. 

Strange Hotel was originally a short story; McBride calls it “the book that I wrote by accident”, and says when she finished it, she thought it would be her “easy” novel: “No one will be able to say this is impenetrable!” Six months later, she read a proof, and thought, “Oh fuck. I’ve made something that, again, readers have to work for.”

McBride has an aversion to exposition. “It just doesn’t interest me to write it,” she says. “I just don’t care. The things that count to me are the things going on inside. Things that hit.” These are strewn across her novels: moments of humiliation, desire or violence, the thrill and terror of intimacy, smells, sounds, déjà vu. “There are things that invade you, that you can’t control, no matter how protective you are. There are things that will just go through all of that. Those are the things I’m interested in catching.”

***

Born in Liverpool in 1976 to Northern Irish parents, John and Gerardine, McBride was the only girl alongside three boys. The small, ultra-conservative and “very fucking religious” town of Tubbercurry, Ireland, where she lived between the ages of five and 14, was not an easy place for an odd, bookish girl to grow up. The locals saw McBride’s parents as “blow-ins”, and the library was stocked with Mills & Boon. McBride is content to describe it as “very grim”.

Both her parents were psychiatric nurses: an emotionally taxing job, especially for her anxious father, who was, ironically, “very afraid of mental illness”. At one secure hospital for prisoners in England, there was a culture of staff being violent towards patients, and John was ostracised for refusing to engage in it. After the family moved to Ireland, he returned to England to testify against former colleagues. “He was a very gentle man,” McBride says.

Just before McBride was born, her elder brother Donagh was diagnosed with a brain tumour. (So, too, is the narrator’s brother in Girl.) Once a year, the family would travel the breadth of the country to Dublin for his annual scan. The McBride children were given spending money for the trip, and they’d run into the nearest bookshop to spend it all. “Yay!” McBride laughs drily. “It’s brain tumour checking time!” 

When she was a child, she didn’t see her brother as different. “That was just him, that was the person that I knew.” Nor was she overly aware of the impact his treatment had on the family. “Although that came along soon enough, once my father got sick.”

In the summer of 1985, John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; 11 weeks later, he was dead. McBride recalls tagging along to an appointment three months earlier where the doctor said cheerily, “Oh, Mr McBride, you’re a terrible hypochondriac.” The two had been very close. “It was very traumatic,” she says. She has clear memories of his final days: “I saw him suffer. He talked to me about dying before he died. His dead body was in the house.”

“When you’re a child and you experience grief really up close… from then on, death is always really close. And it still is. I think: any moment! Here it comes!” She laughs nervously. “Every time I catch a cold, you know…” The tragedy of her father’s death has come into sharper relief with age. “It’s funny, now that I’m in my forties I think, ‘He was only 40 when he died.’ Of course, when I was eight, I thought that was so old. But now…” she pauses. “He didn’t have an easy life, and it was short.”

After John died, McBride’s mother became increasingly religious. Her elder brothers moved to England. The house became quiet. “That’s the thing about bereavement,” she says. “It’s not just losing the person, it’s losing a whole way of life.” As McBride got older, she was increasingly keen to escape the west of Ireland. At 17, she moved to London for drama school – and threw herself into a brighter, louder way of living.

“Taking loads of drugs, and wandering around in the middle of the night in London… I now think was maybe not that sensible,” she says, with a decidedly unremorseful grin. “I was free to be whoever I wanted to be. It was pretty fucked up and a bit wild, but in a great way.” Even over a morning cup of tea, McBride has an insouciant presence – something that was recently captured in a photo of her outside the Irish embassy in a black dress and hoop earrings, fag in mouth, scowling slightly as she signs a book. It was a hit on Twitter, and McBride felt obligated to come clean about her smoking on her life insurance policy. “I wish that actually was the way I lived my life, every day, as the woman in that picture. That it exists briefly is enough.”

The Lesser Bohemians, in which an Irish teenage girl moves to London for drama school, captures McBride’s fond memories of her time at the Drama Centre, where she met her husband. But she acknowledges that it was not quite “that feckless, endless summer”. She was lonely, anxious about her health and, surrounded by older, better-educated students, insecure. “I felt very gauche and unsophisticated.” Six months after McBride graduated, Donagh’s brain tumour became terminal. He died at 28; McBride was 22. The grief put an end to her desire to act. She began a string of temp jobs and travelled to eastern Europe, and has said that she was “lost for a number of years”. Eventually, at 27, she sat down to write Girl.

At first McBride struggled to shake off the feeling that she simply wasn’t clever. “It took me a long time to realise that just because you don’t know how to blag doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent.” She still sees blaggers around her now: “Male writers who know how to give it all of this, but when you read the book, you’re, like, this is terrible!” She is sceptical of literary London ­– which she felt isolated from during the long nine years it took to find a publisher willing to print Girl. “I have no romantic notions about it any more. I have no aspirations to be part of the establishment.” 

McBride is ambivalent about the state of publishing. She is happy to see a growing appetite for inventive prose since her debut won the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction in 2013. “This is possibly quite arrogant, but I do think A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing opened a door. Suddenly books like Milkman can win the Booker, which is great.” But she is also frustrated by a “backlash” reasserting the literary merit of conventional fiction, the kind that you can “enjoy reading or skimming. I have a problem with those books being treated as serious literature. That annoys me, a lot.”

Other trends rankle, too: “I don’t really like a lot of ‘me and my sad life’ kind of writing – which is probably a bit ironic, coming from me.” And the recent Booker Prize debacle, when the judges awarded the prize to both Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo – well, that “was a ridiculous way to behave”. McBride believes Evaristo deserved to win outright: “They made the Booker about themselves, and they were so pompous about it. I mean, really arrogant. Just pick! Be a grown-up. Make a choice.”

She is similarly staunch about British politics. “I am disgusted by the size of Boris Johnson’s majority, but I was also disgusted by the Labour Party. Really disgusted.” A lifelong Labour voter, McBride was shocked by the party’s anti-Semitism scandal. “It was an absolute disgrace. There’s nothing left for me in that party. I can’t imagine, in a generation, voting for them again. They’ve covered themselves with shame… I feel very, very angry about it. They can fuck off and do whatever they want – they have nothing to do with me.” How would she describe her politics now? “Well,” she laughs, “clearly I’m a centrist dad.” 

McBride is working on a number of projects, including the screenplay for a film adaptation of The Lesser Bohemians. (“There’s a cinematic quality to just the setting… the Nineties! The blessed Nineties.”) Back living in London, having spent her thirties in Cork and Norwich, she finally feels at home. “When I was 17, I was, like, ‘This is my place.’” It’s a different pace of life now: McBride spends her days working while her daughter is at school. “Adulthood is always such a disappointment because being a teenager is such a rush,” she says. “Everything settles.”

Even so, as her novels demonstrate, the past is never really gone. “Everyone forgets about grief, someone else’s grief. Everyone feels it in the moment and has sympathy and can see the pain – but once the person starts to behave in a more usual way, people forget. And that’s neither right nor wrong,” she says. “That’s just life.” 

“Strange Hotel” is published by Faber & Faber; Eimear McBride appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 April

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit