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Eimear McBride: The Lesser Bohemians

Eimear McBride’s first novel received considerable acclaim from critics and won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I did not, on the whole, share the enthusiasm. I found the disjointed, staccato sentences distracting and felt that they added little to the book. Critics claimed that this was original. It was not, not least because Joyce had done it a hundred years ago. Joyce used, for example, baby talk at the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to good effect but only for a short section. McBride used her disjointed style throughout the novel. I found its main use was to make the book difficult to read without adding anything to it. Difficult to read? Must be great and original, then. No, it must not. Using language in various ways is, of course, one of the hallmarks of twentieth and twenty-first century literature and there are quite a few books on this site that do so. But good authors use language in various ways to make their point and some succeed and some do not. Experiment is good but, when it does not really work, it is not. I felt that it did not work in her first book. Others disagreed.

I am reminded of Will Self who famously said I don’t really write for readers. To a certain degree, that is a valid stance to take but, ultimately, if you continue that way, you won’t have (m)any readers. Many brave writers have adopted that point of view and ended up forgotten – I hope I have resurrected a few on this site and, certainly, other bloggers have done so on their sites – but it is not always the best approach. Self, for example, seems to make a point of writing in his post-modernist, disjointed style purely for its own sake. In my view, it adds nothing to his work; indeed, in his Man Booker shortlisted novel Umbrella, it definitely detracts from it. McBride is in danger of the same thing.

This book starts off in the same way but, fortunately, it does not continue in that way for the whole book. Nevertheless, she still uses something of a disjointed style throughout the book, with sentences starting and not finishing, dialogue where the sentences are run together so it is not always clear who is speaking or just fragments of… what? It is not clear. That she uses this style to make a point is obviously valid. Take the following paragraph:

I fa. I. Step into. Ticket in my hand. Lift. Memory lifting. Concrete wet. Muck tiles. Memory lift to. Queue to. Bank machine. Roadside. To. Bus. Beggar. Back. No. Lift to ‘No Begging’ sign. Ears to the tussle traffic. Mini-cab rank. Cross I here. Salvation Army Hall and. Lift. Marlon Brando Guys and Dolls and. Pub called. Pub called. Turn to and see. Frill and I. See the. What? See the. City. City. Ah fuck. Fuck it blank. Start again.

I have no idea what I fa is. I fall? I falter? No matter. The entire paragraph gives the impression of her dashing around, doing things, seeing things. This works well if it is used for such effect now and again. However, all too often, this is the norm. However, as I said, the book does eventually become more readable.

The basic story can be summed up quite succinctly. It is 1994. An eighteen-year old Irish woman, Eily (though we do not learn her name till well over half way through the book) comes to London to study drama. She is keen to enjoy the bright light of the big city. She meets a man, called Stephen (though we do not learn his name till well over half way through the book), twenty years older than her, with a failed marriage and a daughter who lives in Canada, who is an actor and only just starting to have some success. She loses her virginity to him and they have a tumultuous affair, on again, off again, on again, off again, with both having brief flings in between. Both have their demons and these take up a good part of the book, particularly Stephen’s demons.

While it is 1994 (and, later, 1995) and therefore well past the Swinging Sixties, Eily is Irish Catholic. So is her landlady. English men have no morals, you bear that in mind, the landlady tells her and when she sees Eily and Stephen in the house, going up to Eily’s room, Eily is given two weeks notice. Back home for the holidays – where she feels very much out of place – her mother sees what looks like a man’s handwriting on a letter to her – and says Missy I hope you’re not up to anything over there that would make me feel ashamed. But, in London, casual sex is the norm, even if feminisms is not. When she first meets Stephen, he is reading Dostoevsky’s The Devils. He is surprised that she has read it. You just don’t look the kind, he says. Oh? Boobs too big? Hair too blonde? she retorts.

But he buys her a drink, they go back to his place and they have sex. Writing about sex is difficult but I must say McBride’s description of their first encounter is very well done. Things get difficult, as he does not contact her. She bumps into him in a theatre and things resume. But it remains very much on again off again. She has other problems, such as her housing, not quite as difficult in London then as it is now, but still difficult. She tries to get through to him, find out about his past life and they do both share their horror stories, his perhaps more horrible than hers.

Much of the latter part of the book is about his tales of woe and his grim early life which has, to a great extent, made him the man he is today, namely a man not really capable of having a warm, loving relationship with a woman. While Eili is no saint – she has quite a few casual flings, sometimes under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol – he has more of a grim past, which inevitably spills over to his current life. We now get the inevitable question: can the love of a good woman (a good woman twenty years younger than him, with her own demons and commitment issues) save him?

This is certainly not a bad book but I still do not get why McBride has been hailed as the best Irish writer since Joyce. Obviously, lots of people seem to feel that way, so it is quite possible that I am missing something here but I have read many better books and, indeed, many better Irish books. Critics have recognised that she is a difficult writer and will therefore not appeal to everyone. However, as with Will Self, mentioned above, being difficult for the sake of difficult does not a great writer make.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Faber & Faber