Thwarted love, self-loathing and denied desire

by John Boland

Fiction: The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride, Faber&Faber, hdbk, 320 pages, €19.99

After the critical success of ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’, Eimear McBride returns with a powerful coming-of-age story.

Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing created a sensation when it appeared in 2013. Rejected for almost a decade by a succession of mainstream publishers, it was finally taken up by the small Galley Beggar press in Norwich and went on to win all the main literary awards, apart from the Man Booker.

It was certainly an extraordinary novel and while some readers couldn’t handle its fractured language and emotional intensity, others marvelled at this ferocious chronicle of an Irish girl’s torment over the decline of her brain-damaged brother and her descent into degrading sexual promiscuity and self-harm after violent abuse by a visiting uncle.

Writing at the time in these pages, I was among the marvellers, though I suggested that readers who sought consolation and redemption from a novel should look elsewhere, and I also wondered what on earth McBride would write next, “because this book is a one-off”.

The answer comes with The Lesser Bohemians, nine years in the making (according to the Liverpool-born but Irish-raised author) and stylistically reminiscent of the first novel, with an opening paragraph that reads: “I move. Cars move. Stock, it bends light. City opening itself behind. Here’s to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.”

Some may find this stylistically off-putting, and indeed while the book quickly becomes much easier to read than its predecessor, the thought occurs that, while a girl may be a half-formed thing, surely an 18-year-old Irish drama student in London could express herself in less broken terms.

Yet the splintered syntax does vividly convey the estrangement and insecurity, indeed sheer terror, of an inexperienced young Irish woman from a rural background trying to find both her way and herself in a huge metropolis with its own mysterious social rules and customs.

Experience arrives in the form of a 38-year-old actor who chats her up in a pub, and what follows is a chronicle of their affair, which is both voraciously sexual and emotionally traumatic. Indeed, it’s hard to recall a coming-of-age story so powerful and true in its depiction of desire and despair, elation and abasement – or, indeed, so evocative of the city in which it’s set.

That takes us to the book’s halfway point, at which stage the narrator learns from her actor lover the details of his damaged background, including a fecklessly absent father and a disturbed mother who persistently beat him and abused him sexually.

This confession takes 70 pages to relate and while it’s absorbing in itself, it seems to belong to a different and, indeed, more conventional novel – and not only because the prose in which he tells his terrible tale becomes more conventional, too.

The reader may wonder why so much is being revealed about this damaged man, especially when the narrator’s own damaged past, involving childhood sexual abuse by a neighbour, is mentioned only fleetingly.

The book, after all, is her own story, told to us in the first person by herself, and with many intimate revelations confided along the way, so why such reticence on this clearly traumatic event, especially when she’s the person who’s more fascinating to the reader than her lover?

There are other oddities, including the fact that we only learn her name is Eily on page 216 and that his is Stephen on page 277. Why withhold this information? Is McBride saying that, like the doomed lovers in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, sexual passion renders identity irrelevant until something beyond the carnal is being sought?

The lovers in McBride’s novel also seem destined for doom in their volatile and destructive pursuit of fulfilment, though here again the narrative and tone shift gear and the book heads towards that most old-fashioned of outcomes: a happy ending. This surprising late development doesn’t really square with what the reader has come to know of these two people and of their helpless ­tendency to self-destructiveness, while the book also seems less concerned than the reader that the estranged daughter with whom Stephen is due to be reunited is the same age as Eily.

Indeed, it’s hard not to feel that in the book’s latter half McBride has funked dealing with the darker implications that had been raised in its first 150 pages.

“Real life’s not all romance and I should remember that,” Eily reflects on going home for Christmas after her initial sexual encounters with Stephen, and when they have one of their many tormented break-ups, she ends up drunk and drugged at a party and “I open my thighs, saying Lads do anything”.

Other such transgressive moments occur throughout, and the reader recognises the uncomfortable truths being told about thwarted love and the self-loathing that’s the inevitable baleful outcome of denied desire. Eily recognises them, too, and her painful honesty and self-awareness are what make her such a fully realised and memorable person.

For these reasons, it’s difficult not to baulk at a resolution that seems too easily achieved and too cosy to be true. But the first 150 pages are marvellous.

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