#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!

#5 (2020) Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

I had been eagerly anticipating Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel ever since it was announced last year as I absolutely loved her previous two novels: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians.

At the mid-point of her life a woman enters an Avignon hotel room. She’s been here once before – but while the room hasn’t changed, she is a different person now. 

Forever caught between check-in and check-out, she will go on to occupy other hotel rooms, from Prague to Oslo, Auckland to Austin, each as anonymous as the last, but bound by rules of her choosing. There, amid the detritus of her travels, the matchbooks, cigarettes, keys and room-service wine, she will negotiate with memory, with the men she sometimes meets, and with what it might mean to return home.

If you haven’t yet read any of McBride’s books, the first thing I’d say is that she is an absolute wordsmith. Her handling of language — both English and Hiberno-English — is fresh and creative. Both of her previous novels deal with very sensitive issues, which she handles with the utmost care. As someone with a closeted desire to be a writer, I am hugely inspired by McBride’s talent and the unique voice she has crafted.

Strange Hotel follows the female protagonist through a series of hotel rooms in different cities, and provides some indication of what happens there. The book reads quite differently to her previous books. The language is arguably more straightforward; McBride describes it as more ‘formal’ in this clip from Faber & Faber. While A Girl and The Lesser Bohemians are both, in their own way, quite introspective novels, Strange Hotel takes this to the next level. The whole work appears to be an internal monologue, rarely broken by external forces. As a result, I found the narrative a little muddy, and wanted more detail about why she was in these different hotel rooms. When I expressed this to a fellow PhDer (and probably the most avid reader I’ve ever met), he expressed surprise that I found Strange Hotel a more challenging read than A Girl. I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Naturally, there were passages where McBride’s prose shone through with particular clarity, and I relished these parts for their sense of familiarity and comfort. This is the Eimear I know and love, I felt. Here, for example…

It is the farthest furthest she has ever been. On a flat earth she would be at the edge. As it is, to go on might be the shortest way home and just let the world fold back on itself. For despite some perplexity regarding her current notions of home — and her periodic declarations that it is simply not so — her belief in the planet’s curve is secure. It is an unbreachable line, and one of the few of which she has ever been sure. (Pg. 78)

What challenged me most, however, was how I felt about the character. Where before I had been moved to the core, here I felt nothing. For all of the introspection and internal dialogue, I felt no connection to the character. Although McBride in her characteristic manner, teases out details a taste at a time, before drawing back the curtain to reveal all, I was little moved. And for me, as an emotionally-driven soul, this was a big let down.

A few days after I finished reading the book I went to an event at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and heard McBride read a passage from the novel. It was a different experience to reading it myself, and it made me hopeful. I’ll give it some time before reading it through again; perhaps my expectations of what the book might have been interfered with what the book was.

If you’ve read the book I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly in relation to her previous two. And if you haven’t read it, please don’t let me put you off! There was a lot of personal feeling invested in this book and, as I say, that may have affected my reading of it.