#13 (2020) The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

There aren’t many books I re-read year after year, but The Lesser Bohemians is one of them. Last year I bought this paperback copy specifically so that I could take it on my trip to California. Now I associate it with pre-dawn jet-lagged mornings, drinking tea in the cosy reading corner in my friend’s lovely home, and the sound of heavy rain (California was uncharacteristically wet the week I went!) It’s weird how objects can transport us back to places.

McBride’s first novel, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing is beautifully crafted and well worth buying. Her latest novel, Strange Hotel was published this February and you can read my thoughts on it here.

The vibrant energy of 1990s London. A year of passion and discovery. The anxiety and intensity of new love. 

An eighteen-year-old Irish girl arrives in London to study drama and falls violently in love with an older actor. While she is naive and thrilled by life in the big city, he is haunted by demons, and the clamorous relationship that ensues risks undoing them both. At once epic and exquisitely intimate, 
The Lesser Bohemians is a celebration of the dark and the light in love.

As the burb suggests, love is at the core of The Lesser Bohemians, and the relationship between the two protagonists is the primary focal point. However, the novel is also concerned with growth and maturity; facing one’s demons head on; and the importance of trust. Truth and trust play a big role in shaping the actions of the characters, and the consequences are often grim and gritty.

Like McBride’s first novel, The Lesser Bohemians deals with some very difficult — and often explicit — content. There are passages where the desire to cringe is strong, and often I find myself wanting to just get inside the book and rescue the characters from themselves. They’re both scarred and damaged and in need of love. At times, their self-destructive tendencies are hard to bear. However, it is a testament to McBride’s writing and storytelling that the book remains hopeful. It sucks you in and pulls at your emotions until you are ‘just one more page’-ing until you manage to stop (not aided by the lack of chapters).

McBride’s writing is often quite fragmentary. She skips from short, sharp sentences to longer passages, but rarely conforms to what you might consider ‘traditional’ prose. This, I think, is one of the most pleasurable and evocative aspects of her novels. Take this passage, for example:

Coffee smelt cinema no kissing here.* Long limbs crooked to fit. Balled coats kicked under. Darkening. Music there. Quiet here. Then it comes, in its light and white-light. From the start, it has me. I am unprepared. Paralyse in its image. Forward to breathe as birds fleer from the Virgin’s dress. The stamp of it. Weight in me. All down my neck. (Pg. 55)

*In the book there are parts of the text printed in a smaller font, indicating the thought-process of the narrator. This isn’t possible to replicate on WordPress, hence the non-italic text.

Or this, from later in the book:

And where the eye goes, an ocean. No. Overcast sea. In with the hiss of it. In with eyes wetting breeze like sea does, hair goes, strands across tongue. Far off, in pewterish clouds and rain. The rolling unseen where whales might be and underneath does not even bear thinking of. Does not bear there but bears me up. On a skillet pallet small boat. Where I am stood strid and balanced, but for the swell. Over small rollers. Over the place like unreasonable same. Hidden from a shore. Tir na. (Pg. 111)

This latter passage is flavoured with McBride’s Irishness. Tir na, at the end of the extract, is likely a reference to Tír na nÓg (land of the young) from Irish mythology. There are small hat tips to Ireland throughout the book, although less so than in A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, which was scattered with lots of scrumptious Hiberno-English.

In short, McBride’s book is brilliant. She is an exceptional wordsmith and her handling language makes me all of abuzz. The Lesser Bohemians is one those unassuming and often forgotten books that I’m always encouraging people to read. As always, thoughts and feedback are welcome!

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