Summary : Five stars
Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians has much in common, at least narrative-wise, with her 2013 novel A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing. Story-wise, both of McBride’s novels delve into the mind of a young girl, sexually abused from an early age, and the toll it takes on her relationships with men as she grows older. But the protagonist of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is simultaneously overwhelmed and dependent on the relationship with her older brother who eventually becomes severely ill, annihilating any hope of redemption or salvation for a tragically frail girl.
In The Lesser Bohemians, McBride offers her protagonist a sort of companionship in misery. One night in a London bar, eighteen-year-old Eily, who moves from Ireland to live the life of 90s-era Camden bedsits and drunken nights while attending drama school during the day in hope of becoming an actress, meets Stephen, a man in his forties and also an actor who like her, has led a very troubled life. As they talk and begin to know each other, Eily and Stephen start to understand that they are equally damaged by their past.
However, while Eily and Stephen have both been victims of abuse at the hands of others, Stephen’s addictions to drugs and alcohol caused his ex-wife to leave him and in the process separates him from their young daughter, denying him all rights to ever have contact with her. As Eily and Stephen begin to fall in love they begin to realize that their turbulent past, more than their age difference, may not allow them to have a future. They acknowledge a growing love for each other, but not enough to overcome the deep feeling of mistrust that comes with the idea of a sexual and emotional relationship.
McBride’s form of narration can at first intimidate some readers, since her prose is completely absent of speech marks and reads more like a very complex and sometimes intimidating form of stream of consciousness. But certainly McBride is not the first one to attempt this. Cynan Jones, James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy and Josè Saramago, just to name a few are writers that defy all form of conventionality in their prose by obliterating traditional form of dialogue and punctuation.
And while it may seem daunting at first, McBride’s use of stream of consciousness in The Lesser Bohemians is fiery, gut-wrenching and absolutely raw in its way of dissecting the ugliness that can exist in the way we love. One of the most decisive moments in the book comes when Stephen and Eily split up due to Eily having slept with another man. What Stephen doesn’t know in his fury at Eily’s betrayal, is that her infidelity was propelled by her lack of belief in Stephen’s feelings for her and the certainty that he was in turn, unfaithful to her while away on a trip.
Eily knows that Stephen doesn’t want to see her, but she eventually goes to him, motivated by a need to take care of him, even if it means never resuming their romantic relationship. When she arrives at Stephen’s apartment, she finds him heartbroken, amidst a messy room and an even more turbulent state of mind:
I’m sorry I say. Don’t worry, he shrugs It wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion, this place is a mess, then drops himself back on the bed. Did you just come across them? I was looking them out, hence the crap everywhere. I sit down beside Why? In case to remind myself if there’s any funny business tomorrow if she wants the letters to stop I need to remember what I’ve already lost and not give in. Covering his face then, he suddenly goes down. What’s wrong? He sinks further so I stroke his arm. I’m just a bit down tonight, he says Tomorrow I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine again but tonight is pretty hard. And I can’t bear this. I hate it. The desolation in him, spread out across this filthy room. My part in it. His own. Let me stay with you, I say. He shakes his head I couldn’t do that. Just as your friend, just for tonight and we won’t talk about what happened. I won’t try to change your mind.
It is difficult at first to discern which part of the exchange is Stephen’s and which Eily’s. But once it becomes clear, the sadness of the scene between them is amazingly poignant, as is Eily’s sudden realization, after witnessing Stephen’s desperation and feeling her own, that “despair, not hate, is the opposite of love.” But McBride offers hope in the middle of this despair, as Eily and Stephen understand that despite everything, they are an unusual form of kindred spirits.
Eimear McBride is curt and to the point when answering questions about The Lesser Bohemians and her narrative technique, confident that readers will have no problem in discerning the meaning and plot complexity behind stream of consciousness.
I think the lure was revisiting the London I’d known as a student in the mid-1990’s. It was a strange, vibrant time and I wanted to recapture the thrill of being a country girl arriving in the big city.
The title is unusual and at the same time, terribly appealing. Why did you choose this title for the novel?
In that period Camden Town was synonymous with a very glamorous, successful kind of bohemian life. I wanted to write about the unglamorous artist’s life, the ones who struggle through because they love what they do. It’s also to do with the lead character being a drama student and the life that goes with that.
How difficult was it to write this novel, which seems to rely solely on stream of consciousness? Do you think some readers may find the novel difficult to follow?
It was difficult to write but not because of the language. It took me a long to time to understand the characters well enough to write about them with the kind of layering I knew they needed. When that finally happened the language came quite quickly. I think it can take a while for readers to accustom themselves to how the language works but most tell me that, a few pages in, they become immersed -which is the point- and stop noticing it.
Stephen and Eily’s past are marked with terrible abuse during their childhood. How does this shared history influence their attraction to each other?
It’s hard to say. He knows about their shared history a lot sooner than she does but at one point she says ‘We make the same the same rattling sound I think’ and for me that touches the core of their relationship. They recognize something in each other early on but it takes a long time for it to rise up into consciousness.
Stephen at one point confides his secrets to Eily but she seems to hold back a lot of things from him. Why is that? Is it a matter of trust or fear?
No, it’s not about fear or trust. It’s about time. I don’t think she’s reached the time in her life for self-reflection yet. She’s so young and eager to not to be a prisoner to her past. She wants to live as though leaving home has given her a clean slate and she’s yet to learn, as he has, that the past cannot be outrun.
How difficult was it to write a novel with main characters that are so complex, multilayered, and in many ways, emotionally damaged?
It was very difficult but trying to juggle the complexity is half the pleasure of writing. Each time I rewrote it I’d lay down another layer of breadcrumbs for the reader. The book is filled with tiny signposts for those who know how to read them. Hopefully the cumulative effect is something rich and human.
Why did you choose to tell the story from Eily’s point of view?
As a writer I want to bring the reader in as close to the character as possible. I’d like them not to identify with her but almost as her because I want them to experience the world as she experiences it. So much fiction today features young women in the role of side-kick or passive observer of even themselves. It was important to me that Eily be the focus and the star of her own life.
How long did it take you to write The Lesser Bohemians?
Nine years… and that is not with breaks!
What would you like readers to take away from the novel?
The idea that brokenness need not necessarily be a bar to happiness.
Which authors have influenced you as a writer?
Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Yeats, Lawrence, George Eliot, Kundera.
What future projects are you currently working on?
After several months of touring with The Lesser Bohemians, my first project is the recovery of my sanity. I’ve also started my next novel. Perhaps I will also return to Eily and Stephen’s story someday.
Eimear McBride’s answers have been edited.