Two years after dazzling and unsettling readers with her debut novel, “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing” — which explored and expressed childhood trauma through chaotic, frenetic, virtuosic language — Eimear McBride returns with a much anticipated follow-up.
“The Lesser Bohemians” is a tale of wild living and passionate love in mid-1990s London. But with McBride, story is secondary to voice. Her half-formed girl’s jumbled yet vivid stream of consciousness was so unique and accomplished that it prompted us to ask: Where does McBride go from here? Has she painted herself into a corner?
Happily, her stunning second novel shows that she has not only acquired fresh surfaces to work on, she has also developed exciting new brush strokes.
The novel follows an unnamed 18-year-old Irish woman’s progress through three terms at a London acting school. However, the main drama is conducted offstage in pubs, at parties and in bedrooms.
She meets a man, an established actor 20 years her senior, who invites her back to his book- and script-strewn Camden flat. Beneath his sheets, she is shy and inexperienced. Their casual one-night stand blossoms into a tumultuous relationship in which she undergoes a thorough sexual awakening (“Girl I’ve been, woman I’ll be”) and he learns to exorcise his past demons.
Their course of love runs far from smooth. There is violence, deceit, heartache and a pregnancy scare. When he is unfaithful, she spites him, and shocks herself, by descending into booze-fueled depravity. Both crash and burn while apart; back together, they lick their wounds, get closer — then come undone again.
All changes during one long, dark night when he opens up to her about the horrors his mother inflicted upon him, his resultant meltdown and his ongoing agony for his absent daughter.
At the end of these revelations comes a declaration — “I love you, Eily.” Finally, after 200 pages, we learn the name of McBride’s young woman.
Not that it matters, for so candid and vital are the inner thoughts she has shared with us that we already know her.
We have felt her fear throughout auditions, rehearsals and performances; her hurt, anger and ecstasy in love, and her pain and shame as she slides from self-restraint to self-destruction.
McBride’s prose sings, whether describing the erotic (“I halfly dress”), or the alcoholic (“enslithered by pints,” “drinks and draggeldy home”). In places it is unmistakably Irish: “Traffic all gadding in the midday shine.”
Readers of a more sensitive nature may be offended by the many explicit and expletive-riddled passages; the rest of us will be grateful that McBride doesn’t do half measures, for every unadulterated thought and unsparing detail adds color and authenticity. That said, it would be nice if for her next novel McBride could dispense with abusive family members.
“The Lesser Bohemians” recalls Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller. Ultimately, though, it is a fiercely original work, an extraordinary novel crafted by a fearless modern writer.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Lesser Bohemians
By: Eimear McBride.
Publisher: Hogarth, 310 pages, $26.