Review: Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians is a Familiar Triumph

In 2013 Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thingwas released and with it came the story of an author who fought for nearly ten years to publish a book that was exciting, challenging and experimental in a literary atmosphere where the novel is constantly accused of having sold out to stories of easy-to-read fantasy or dystopian fiction. An exploration into the mind of a woman as she grows up alongside a handicapped brother and a domineering mother, its prose was on par with the complexity and veracity of William Faulkner. It felt like a slap in the face of modern literature’s numerous critics who lament the lack of a contemporary to James Joyce. After she won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, she quickly became one part saviour of literature and one part patron saint of the unpublished writer.

The success of a debut is always a poisoned chalice: “Reviewers will use my first book as a noose for my second,” said David Leavitt. McBride’s follow up defies this dictum.

The Lesser Bohemians is the story of Eilis, a young woman who moves from her home in Ireland to study drama in London. A timid virgin at the beginning of the story, Eilis fumbles her way through her first sexual relationship with Stephen, nineteen years her senior. As she learns more about him and the parameters of her own sexuality, we discover how the effect these two characters have on one another is as damaging as it is passionate. The story is more traditional; a coming of age story, as oppose to the complex family drama of A Half-Formed Thing, but it has the same themes of abuse, sexual discovery and mental instability, and could be accused of being a missed opportunity for the author to push herself or explore a theme that differs from her previous outing.

she shows the talents of a writer who is able to thrill and horrify

The story is told with a similar exuberance of language. Although it may seem difficult on the surface, the writing soon slips into focus once you realise it is simply an extension of the central character’s mental fabric. Although often poetic - ‘Fright I. He Holds to. The make of his lip, turning into my own, turn until I kiss back.’- the lines have more in common with a dream. Words and phrases do not follow a logical sequence but a sub-conscious word association. Take the opening: ‘I move. Cars move. Stock, it bends light. City opening itself behind.’ These are synapsis buzzing, something which McBride refers to as a part of a stream of pre-consciousness. The language is produced untouched by the security and rigidity (and maybe even boredom) of ready-to-go thoughts or words.

That is not to say that there is no language spoken, but again, these are words that are not yet crafted. ‘I ask straightaway Was it her? Peanuts down. No. Pints too. You have though, haven’t you?’ Perhaps it’s appropriate then that they are outside the comfort of speech marks. They are rough, some already regretted even while they are being said. All of it adds to a reconstitution of Eilis’ state of mind as it comes up against Stephen’s, one that is reflected in the structure of the lines. Unlike A Half-Formed Thing, McBride experiments with the placement of lines on the page, increasing the distance between words as the story goes on. Words fall from their lines like they are forgotten and then remembered or are too painful to be given the shape of letters and put off until they can no longer be avoided. That is not to say the book is not without moments of lucidity, where the consciousness snaps into place and produces a perfect line: ‘He’s like the dad - if your dad kicks the shit out of you,’ she writes of a drama teacher.But still she shows the talents of a writer who is able to thrill and horrify, as her numerous sex scenes attest to, where the lines are tight and dance between pain and pleasure and, amongst the haze of drugs and drink, even consent and rape.

The novel triumphs in developing alongside the central character

This is something that The Lesser Bohemians excels at but which does not feel like a continuation of McBride’s work in A Half Formed Thing. There is a sense of place and time to The Lesser Bohemians. This is London in a pre-internet 90’s, specifically Camden. Withnail and I drops in. The World’s End makes a repeated appearance and the clear and constant communication of Facebook and other social media gives out to an atmosphere amongst the students of gossip, misunderstanding and half-truths. Drugs are a plenty, but there is still the spectre of AIDS, as in one scene where the main character is convinced to have unprotected sex with a man she knows to have had a gay relationship in the past and McBride adds an element of division between the English and the Irish, one that is not so hushed on the edges of the novel.

The novel triumphs in developing alongside the central character, a man whose initial mystery reveals itself in a tragic but ultimately self-explanatory fashion. Beginning as a figure appearing out of pure randomness - he is a bartender in a busy pub - there is a slow discovery of Stephen as he is formed out of nothing. McBride takes us and Eilis through the discovery of feelings like loving admiration, betrayal, charm and even violence, before a mid-ay point of sudden emotional unveiling. A foil perhaps a little too reminiscent of the brother from A Half-Formed Thing, it is still nonetheless an effective marriage of characters.

The rumour goes that McBride wrote The Lesser Bohemians whilst trying to get an agent and publisher for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and this might explain the similarities between the two. The Lesser Bohemians is slightly safer, a sign that it was waiting in the wings to pick up the ideas that McBride may have feared might not have made it to the inside of a book cover. It’s one of the reasons perhaps why it’s also difficult not to talk about the latter without mentioning the former. But while the two are similar in theme and story, they are also similar in their deftness of language and insight into character, even if it doesn’t feel as revolutionary as it did the first time around.

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