Recently shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, The Lesser Bohemians tells the story of 18 year old Eily who has moved from Ireland to London to study Drama. In the city, she meets Stephen, a 37 year old actor. What starts as casual sex turns into something more: an intense, unexpected love affair that brings out both of their troubled pasts.
The novel is written in the same style as A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – an all-encompassing and enveloping stream of consciousness that pulls you, almost claustrophobically, into the mind of Eily and keeps you there. I connected with this novel much more than Girl. Perhaps it was because I’d read McBride’s first novel and was somewhat accustomed to her style, or it felt familiar in a way that I could sink relatively easily back into. I didn’t have the struggle to understand what was happening or need to make an effort to pick up the book again as I did with Girl. In fact, I felt gripped by this novel. I wanted to see what happened; the nature of McBride’s prose, coupled with the story, has this feeling of immediacy, of not knowing what’s going to happen next, and the characters not knowing either. The sense that this is all happening right now.
There are no speech marks; there are gaps to indicate pause or hesitation. There are fragments of half-started sentences. Longer sentences that can be almost frantic and panicked. It’s all another way of rooting us firmly in her brain and mind, and it is incredibly effective. It’s a compelling technique throughout, but what’s interesting is how the sex is portrayed (of which there is a lot). The book as a whole feels to me as if McBride has opened up Eily’s brain and we are seeing it as it works; with the sex scenes, we see what she feels, rather than what is happening to her.
In contrast to the immersive prose of Eily’s story, Stephen’s is told in conventional prose, in paragraphs, in two separate parts of the novel. Reading these feel a little like coming up for air, a period of time away from that claustrophobic, intense environment that is Eily’s brain, and this works well. The second section of Stephen’s story is a little less successful in that he recounts a past conversation in full. This is something I always take issue with in fiction anyway because who remembers word for word, what someone tells them? Here, it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel – it feels very removed from the ‘now’ of the novel previously. It doesn’t feel rushed necessarily, but it feels much neater than the messiness and complication of the life portrayed before it. I should also mention that, without revealing too much, Stephen’s past is extremely dark and troubled and full of abuse. It is difficult to read, so it’s worth bearing this in mind if you’re thinking of picking up the novel.
There are so many beautiful lines in The Lesser Bohemians. I marked so many lines and phrases, either because of the emotion or scene they capture or because they express something in a way I’ve never read or thought of before. There are some I don’t quite understand, but there’s beauty in their ambiguity, in the sense that I can’t quite grasp what she means or is trying to convey. Isn’t this what thinking is like sometimes? When I was reading I let the words wash over me, not questioning them. Now, looking through the passages and lines I’ve marked while writing this review, I understand why I’ve marked them but sometimes I think what does that mean? Is the line simply beautiful for the sake of being beautiful? However, as a whole, it’s the sense the words give I think that makes the book powerful, how they envelope you in this girl’s life and keep you there, tightly. And while there may be some lines that, to me, don’t make sense, it only adds to the overall feeling of the novel.
McBride’s depiction of a young, introverted girl who is desperate for her life to start, who feels as if she has to invent and lie to make herself into something and someone more than she is at the moment, is wonderful. There are so many emotions packed into short lines and fragments.
‘And I wish that I was someone else, a girl with words behind her face, not this one done up like a stone in herself’. p36
With The Lesser Bohemians, McBride has written a novel that explores first love in an exciting way, gripping you in the mind of the protagonist in a bold and creative form. While it’s written in the same style as A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the voice feels different and, while admittedly it’s been a little while since I read her first novel, they both feel very separate in my mind, showing just how skilled McBride is at recreating the inner workings of her characters’ minds to us. She’s an exciting writer, and I’m curious to see what she writes next, and how.