“If you like a bit of modern-day modernist style then you have to read this” – The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

tlbemFirst thing’s first: you’ve read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, right? No? Tsk, we say: away with you, rectify that, and then come back to us. All caught up? Okay! So, what do you reckon: McBride plumbed the depths with that one, right? Where’s she going to go from there? Well, that’s what we wondered: there was such a perfect gut-pummeling match of style and subject matter in the first book, how’s she ever going to top it without the next one seeming like a copycat also-ran? Maybe, we wondered (feared), it was only ever going to work once. Well, thankfully, we couldn’t have been more wrong: The Lesser Bohemians left us dazed.

This is the story of a young Irish student just moved to London to study drama; she’s intoxicated by the city but she’s inexperienced as anything and fears being caught out or left behind – until she meets a fella. But not just anyone: a famous fella, an actor twenty years her senior. And they start an affair, and boy, does it have its ups and downs. They’ve both got grim secrets (of course) and as the academic year (and the book) progresses, we’re left asking: will they, and ought they to, make their relationship, whatever it is, work?

It’s hard to be more specific about the plot and the characters than that, and we’re aware that the above reads somewhat generically – boy meets girl, torrid histories abound, woe is everyone, will they won’t they – but to be more precise would be to take the intrigue out of it, and, as with Girl…, the genius here isn’t in the bare bones (decent as they are) but in how they’re strung together. McBride’s now-trademark interiority is used as deftly and effectively here as in her debut: the narrator’s truncated sentences, mixed-up syntax, the visual gaps on the page that stand in for hesitancy in dialogue – it shapes for us here a narrator who moves from overawed diffidence and fright all the way through to defiant energy, then panic and fear and love and despair. It’s pitch-perfect throughout. And while the narrator of Girl… was damaged, and that damage was reflected in the prose, and while this narrator is damaged too, and while both characters (and texts) rely heavily on sex and fucked-up families as ways of playing out both the causes and effects of such damage, the two narrators are, nonetheless, nothing alike, and neither are the texts: this one might be as littered with horror as the last one (oh, come on, that’s hardly a spoiler), but it’s also a bone-fide love-story, and all the horror here is filtered through with a tenderness that – despite said horrors, which, believe us, are truly horrible – is incredibly touching and beautiful and credible. (And we’re not generally convinced by stories that feature eighteen year-olds getting it on with thirty-eight year-olds, so that’s quite something.) Plus there’s a lot of technical cleverness here that made us happy: the lengthy reported sections where we get his story, sections that manage to convey his voice, and other voices, all via her narration, but which lose no immediacy as a result and never feel forced or contrived; the use/lack of use of pronouns and proper noun to convey intimacy, and which also draws the reader even more powerfully into the central relationships at key moments; the way she drops in lines from the texts the characters are discussing – it’s all deeply convincing, engaging, and, indeed, beautiful the whole way through. Perhaps the top achievement, though, is how unflinching the text is, which is where it mirrors most closely the triumph of Girl… (while remaining quite distinct from it): at the points at which a lesser text, with a more cautious writer or editor, would stop, either by ending the story or by leaving a gap in the narration, McBride pushes on through. The ‘what ifs’ in a life, in an ill-advised couple, in a destructive family, are all examined here: there’s no flinching, no grimacing or soft-focus. This is viscera-bared, blood-to-the-elbows fiction, and that’s why it’s so effective: like real life, it doesn’t stop at the easy breaks.

Any Cop?: You know when you finish a book and you just lean back and exhale slowly and wait to let it settle because you know it’s not leaving your system for a very long time? If that’s your bag – and, you know, if you like a bit of modern-day modernist style – then you have to read this. It might not make you want to date an actor, but it’s surely got to win some prizes.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 


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