Eimear McBride’s follow-up to ‘A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing’ is a more hopeful thing
Fintan O'Toole reviews Eimear McBride's new novel The Lesser Bohemians
Eimear McBride: ‘The Lesser Bohemians’ might be thought of as Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy 30 years on. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
The Lesser Bohemians
Faber and Faber
Eimear McBride’s stylistically daring and emotionally ferocious first novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was the story of a character who could not fully come into being. The girl of the title was half-formed because she was dragged by an abusive sexual relationship too early into adulthood, leaving parts of herself behind in a very dark, unreachable place. McBride’s eagerly anticipated second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is also about that stormy passage from girlhood to womanhood and it is also deeply shadowed by abuse in childhood. The same ferocity is here and at times the same darkness. But in The Lesser Bohemians the voyage from innocence to experience is ultimately more hopeful. If not fully formed at the end, the central character seems, unlike her predecessor, fully capable of making her own life. “Life”, indeed, is the novel’s last word – literally and emotionally.
Superficially, The Lesser Bohemians might be thought of as Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy 30 years on. Its first-person narrator, 18-year-old Eily, is an Irish country girl (there are broad hints of Sligo) at large for the first time among the thrills and temptations of London in 1994 and 1995. We follow her from her audition for a London drama school through to the end of her first year there. We also follow her from virginity to sexual knowingness, from shy Irish girl to big-city hedonist – a bohemian without the “lesser” of the title. Summarised like this, the novel sounds like a standard bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young woman – or even like the plot of a 1960s soft porn movie.
Eily, though, is much hungrier than the conventional image of the endangered virgin: hungry for sex, for art, for food, for experience, for drugs and drink, for London’s dirt and glitter and danger. (One of the tangential but striking aspects of the book is its reversal of the usual narrative of exile: Eily is at home in London, exiled when she has to go home to Ireland for the holidays.) At first she is cowed by the sophistication of her English classmates, noting of one of them (in an image typical of the freshness and fluidity of McBride’s prose) that she has the “kind of liquid negligence I’d like to dab on the backs of my knees.” But we sense that Eily could never be languid even if she tried – she has too much raw desire.
Not really innocentAnd she’s not really innocent either. No one who read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing would expect McBride to lapse back into a notion of Irish childhood as a terrain of innocence. Eily, we quickly learn, has been repeatedly orally raped as a girl by a jolly neighbour. The passage from innocence to experience is thus complicated by Eily’s existing burden of secrecy and shame. Her hunger is an appetite not just for experience but for expression, for honesty about the body and the things that might happen to it.
And she gets more than she might ever have bargained for. Even while she is living in digs with a good Irish Catholic landlady who warns her against strange men, she becomes ever more deeply entangled with a man 20 years her senior. Stephen (we learn his name only towards the end of the book) is tall and beautiful and a mildly famous actor from Sheffield. He handles her sexual initiation with consideration and good humour, but he is also a dark and complex character. When Eily learns that he has a daughter almost as old as herself, the mess of his previous life, and the sources of his attraction to her become dimly disturbing.
Their strange mutual entanglement – driven less by the older man’s power than by the young woman’s physical and emotional desires – is minutely etched by McBride in a narrative that opens out onto the streets of Kentish Town or the Camden Road only to draw us back ever further into the enclosed intimacies of their narrow beds. Sex is their primary language – until the secrets find their tongue. The wreckage of Stephen’s previous life, the addictions to drugs and sex that caused him to lose his beloved daughter, is laid bare in a dark night of revelation. His own story of physical and sexual abuse by his Irish mother is told. Eily acquires more knowledge than she can have wanted or imagined. Yet – and this is where we are allowed to hope for her future – she is fully equal to this knowledge. We sense, as she seems to herself, “that long night’s story doing its work in ways I now can see” – she will not be an actor, performing other people’s lives, but a writer, watching and listening and telling. “When I first came here,” she writes, “I wanted the world to look at me and now I wanted to be the eye instead.”
Simpler narrative voiceStylistically, The Lesser Bohemians does not attempt to repeat the striking originality of A Girl . . . The sentences, while still sometimes fragmented and discontinuous, come much closer to conventional structures and in consequence give themselves up much more easily. There is not, as in the first book, that vertiginous sense for the reader of falling into dark holes between the words. The narrative voice is simpler – where A Girl . . . was an internal monologue, addressed to the narrator’s dead brother, Bohemians reads more like a story being told to the reader.
And this is not unproblematic. There is quite a stark shift between Eily’s voice, which controls the whole narrative, and the crucial passages in which Stephen tells his story – ostensibly to Eily but actually to us. And this change of narrative perspective becomes more awkward when we get third-hand or even fourth-hand narrative: Eily telling us what Stephen told her about what his ex-lover tells him about what their daughter told her. The individual passages are all gripping but the stylistic relationship between them is not always convincing.
But McBride is always brilliant on her central theme – the paradox that it is shame that makes us behave shamefully. Both Eily and Stephen have the tendency towards masochistic self-destruction that made A Girl . . . such a harrowing read. But this time there is a possibility of escape into love. Eily tells us that the opposite of love is not hate but despair, which suggests that the opposite of self-hatred might be hope. Her hope lies in being able to say that “I have given love its due. Put kindness where it should be.”
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times