I was really impressed by Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, so I was delighted to see that she was publishing a second novel so quickly. The Lesser Bohemians has an unconventional prose style, similar to McBride’s debut, but it is not nearly as dark and unsettling. I also didn’t find it quite as good a book.
The story focuses on an 18-year-old Irish woman who comes to London to attend drama school. She’s nervous about fitting in and finding friends, and about finding a boyfriend and having sex for the first time. She quickly makes a friend, and, when her friend takes her out, she meets an older man, an actor, and he brings her home to his bed. The novel then focuses on their sexual relationship and how it gradually evolves to a greater intimacy as they reveal their deepest secrets.
As with A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, McBride’s style puts readers right in the moment, experiencing whatever the main character feels right along with her. For instance, here she is walking through London with the actor:
We walk up the Embankment by Charing Cross. Oh God please take my hand. But deaf to petition he on the Strand asks Do you like Chinese? I do but. But what? I’ve no money. You’re a student, he laughs Don’t worry, dinner’s on me. By St Martin-in-the-Fields I’m lagging his gait Could you slow down? I can’t walk as quick. Sorry he says Sometimes I forget, how’s this? Better, and is. Soon walking gives—bus-lunged—to starting at the road-load of bookshops and that. God there’s so many, I could live in this street? Up twitch of his mouth. Are you laughing at me? No! I wouldn’t dare! I’m just enjoying the wonder, he says. When I Oh Les Mis! though, he tilts his head Musicals? Really? It’s not that, I say It’s the being here. On thank fuck, he says Chinatown’s this way.
This style is effective at getting across the immediacy and intensity of feelings that come with falling in love or simply with high emotion. But I find it hard to maintain interest in this kind of writing for long stretches. And I was a little frustrated by that fact that the characters, Eily and Stephen, remained unnamed until late in the book. I’m not sure what the purpose of that was. Perhaps it was to create a sense of universality?
At any rate, the style worked less well for me here than in McBride’s earlier book. I’m not sure if that’s because I was in a more easily distracted mood or if the rhythm of it was too repetitive. The story, too, gets repetitive, as the characters’ relationship is mostly just one sexual episode after another. Even though there’s build and variation, there was little else between them at first besides sex and conversations about sex they may or may not be having with other people. I nearly put the book aside because I couldn’t maintain my interest in them as people.
Eventually, however, their relationship expands, and I wonder now if McBride was intentionally making the early chapters a little tedious to show that more was needed. She also provides a break in the fragmented style when Stephen tells Eily about his past. It’s a harrowing story, but the fact that it’s told in a conventional style makes it something of a relief. When the fragmented style returns, the high emotions captured are less about sexual passion and more about emotional intimacy and, eventually, fear of loss.
Although I didn’t like this as much as I did McBride’s previous book, I’m not sure I’d say that it’s not as good a book overall. My differing feelings may have as much to do with my mood as with any objective criteria. As I mentioned when I reviewed Girl, I find writing like McBride’s hard to evaluate. Sometimes it simply doesn’t click with me, and sometimes I wonder if I’m trying to see something there that isn’t. I do think some readers will like this better because, despite some horrifying moments, it is a happier story overall. Personally, I found the ending unconvincing and would have ended it a chapter or two earlier, but sometimes an unconvincing ending is the preferred one. It’s nice to imagine happiness in situations where it seems impossible.
I received a review copy of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Review program.