The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Before him I thought that when love came it would come perfectly. Not in a dingy room on dirty sheets and not caring at all about those things.

Remember those heady days when you set off for university? Young, fresh, desperate to see the world and all it had to offer? Eily has left Ireland for London and drama school. She’s intoxicated by the city:

Get out at Barbican.

Her first into the salient wind, fists of grasping hair. Me blinking the grit over the bridge and after her. Brick and towers. Lour and paint. Here’s nowhere like any life I’ve learned. Even going under, it goes on up. She’s saying how it’s ugly and I think not. I think it is Metropolis.

It’s also her introduction to drink, drugs and, she hopes, sex. Despite her Irish landlady who doesn’t allow her to have men in her room and complains constantly about her using all the hot water, Eily sets out to lose her virginity.

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She meets Stephen when the ash from his cigarette drops onto her hand as they’re standing at the bar in a busy pub. He’s a relatively famous actor, although she doesn’t know that. They have some tetchy discussions about reading Dostoyevsky, love and youth and Eily lies to him about how much travelling she’s done.

When they go back to his and begin to undress, she begins to worry about what she’s about to do: ‘But Oh my God, I just Oh God, exhale. Ah now Ireland too much shame.’ He attempts to ally her fears, acknowledges it’s her first time and gains her consent.

Kissing then sloping me, shifting his weight Ready? Yes. And he. Jesus Christ! No don’t pull away. It hurts. I know but it’s not quite in yet. I can’t. You can, just let me, he says It’ll never be as bad again. How do you fucking know? Educated guess. Then Oh fuck, he goes That’s it. And he is all against me. And he is inside. Attempting to kiss through a pain running wild from his body into mine. I bite my own lip and stare above. Ceiling swirls there. Cracks. Worlds beyond the pain not improving. Now. Or now. Or yet. I wish I hadn’t. I’d never done this. I wish he didn’t know.

It ends badly but he convinces her to stay the night. When she leaves the next morning, she doesn’t look back, choosing instead to remember how much she loves London: ‘This is the finest city I think and, no matter how awkward or bloodily, I am in it now too’.

What Eily doesn’t bank on is seeing Stephen again, this time in the National Theatre, where he makes a beeline for her and convinces her to leave before the play’s over. Despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight – a relationship, of sorts, begins.

Remember this moment. I will remember this because, even though this morning’s not much of his life, it’s very much of mine. Whatever happens, nothing will be the same after and nothing will be like it again.

The novel’s narrated by Eily in a similar style to the one McBride used in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, although I think this is generally less staccato than her debut. Sentences are rhythmic and sometimes rhyme, with echoes of Shakespeare built into some of the phrases. However, at the mid-point of the book, Stephen delivers a monologue, in straight prose, telling Eily (and the reader) the full horror of his childhood. He has some dark secrets which he’s never shared before. It seems fitting that McBride chose a monologue for him, as he’s the type of character who would have to tell all in one go or not at all.

Events in both Stephen and Eily’s lives bring into question memory and individual viewpoints, of people choosing what to see and what to remember. McBride explores the damage the past can do to the present through Stephen and Eily’s behaviour and the constantly changing status of their relationship.

In a recent review of the novel in The New York Times, Jeanette Winterson commented:

There’s endless sex in this novel. If the writing were terrible, we’d be in “Fifty Shades” territory. But McBride is good at describing heterosexual sex because she doesn’t describe it in the usual ways…

Well, of course there’s lots of sex, this is a couple in the early days of their relationship. But I don’t think McBride’s success in writing about sex is merely down to the style of the writing, it’s also because she writes sex that’s messy and real. This isn’t Hollywood, it’s a bedsit in Camden and a thousand other rooms around the world.

I feel similarly about The Lesser Bohemians as I did The Essex Serpent; I didn’t read this novel, I lived inside its pages. McBride has a rare talent for placing you inside the character, seeing what they see, feeling how they feel. I was filled with joy and wrenched apart again and again; it was exhausting and exhilarating. I revelled in it. On the back of the book, there’s a quote from Anne Enright in which she declares Eimear McBride ‘a genius’, she’ll get no argument from me.

 

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

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13 thoughts on “The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

    • Hurrah! The guy who interviewed McBride in Manchester said it was the book he’d talked about most this year.

      I really think she’s brilliant and – with the help of Galley Beggar Press – has opened up a conversation about what the novel looks like and has allowed others who are also doing new things with the form – Anakana Schofield for example – to step forwards too.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m hoping to get my paws on this one at the local library. I’m rather delighted that a more experimental style is getting rave reviews, because, as you yourself pointed out on another occasion, there is very little room for experimentation in today’s publishing world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I was so struck by how she writes about sex in such a refreshingly realistic way and it’s unlike anything I’ve read before. Great to read more of your thoughts about this after talking about it with you and I hadn’t seen the Winterson review – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So happy to hear it’s such a good novel. I hope to get it for Christmas! It will be my first McBride. ‘AGIAHFT’ did not appeal to me that much, but this one does. Maybe 2016 is the year of writers’ second books being a success for me, as it happened similarly with Jessie Burton.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You’ve absolutely convinced me I need to read this, as I slowly become more curious and actually more ‘satisfied’ with books that dare to be that bit different… ordering it and A Girl is a Half Formed Thing as yet to read that too (ducks!!) Which do you recommend I read first?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It depends what you’re in the mood for, really. I would say The Lesser Bohemians isn’t as rigid in style as A Girl, so slightly easier to read. A Girl is also much darker and relentlessly so (don’t get me wrong, there’s darkness in TLB too but it’s offset with a lot of hope); you need to be in the right zone for it. I also think whichever you start with, you need to allow time/space to read the first 50 pages straight through to get into the rhythm of the prose.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 | The Writes of Woman

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