Whilst I am in complete agreement with Anne Enright that Eimear McBride is indeed “that old-fashioned thing, a genius”, McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, is a tricky beast.
The perils of following up a ground-breaking debut such as A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing are akin to difficult second album syndrome. The voice is no less beautiful and the craft still stellar but the story left me feeling an absence, like when you try to strike up a conversation with a friend of a friend but they can only drone on about their ex, get completely wasted then you have to get them home with no idea of where they actually live.
I wanted to love this book, I really did—there is much to love within it. McBride’s style remains tantalisingly lyrical and yet utterly immersive, whether it be describing eating toast and smoking Marlboro Reds in a bedsit or the all-consuming sensuality of a first love, discovering sex in all its visceral messiness. The Lesser Bohemians follows an 18-year-old Irish girl during her first year of acting school in London. She meets a much older, relatively successful actor and they fall in love. They are both survivors of traumatic childhoods but their relationship is rocked by the fallout of behaviour as a consequence of their pasts, not the revelations themselves.
Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, McBride said that she really wanted to write a book about joy, which is trickier than writing a whole book about despair. There are joyful bursts in the book, particularly in following Eily’s growing love of London and her very relatable first year endeavours. However, these are brief tissue layers threaded through the heavy presence of her older actor lover, who dominates the book entirely. The humanity of their dynamic and the difference between them are factors of the relationship that McBride said she wanted to bring out. There are flashes of tenderness between them but Eily remains elusive rather enigmatic, to the point of passivity.
It is unfair and unwise of me to expect the same kind of book as A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing – but it is disappointing that, after providing us with one of the most compelling female voices in recent history, McBride gives us another with very little to say for herself.