Review: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

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Like McBride’s first and spectacular novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, The Lesser Bohemians plays out in a stream of consciousness from the point of view of Eily. She’s eighteen and has recently moved to London from Ireland to start drama school, but she meets Stephen, an older man and well-regarded actor, who decides to take her home for the night. They both have issues locked in their respective pasts, but they fall swiftly into an intense relationship that could have severe consequences for both of them.

McBride’s fractured style means it takes a few pages to acquaint yourself with the rhythms of the prose. Once it clicks, it’s utterly absorbing and her mastery of language renders the familiar with the kind of poetry usually reserved for the extraordinary. We’re privy to all of Eily’s idealism and neuroses as she moves through this new relationship with Stephen.

It begins as casual sex before tuning up to an intensity that surprises both of them. As it’s such an intrinsic element of their relationship, there is a lot of sex presented with the kind of frankness you don’t traditionally see. Gone are the kind of cringeworthy euphemisms that crop up in more romantic presentations and in their place are wry observations, awkwardness, and quirks. It’s intimate, but necessarily so.

Unfortunately, McBride manages to derail herself in the second half of the novel, during which we are treated to an extended monologue about Stephen’s past. This information is essential for where the plot ends up going, but it also loses the intimacy of the opening half of Eily’s perspective. That monologue also brings the dark subtext of the novel fully into the foreground, losing the power it had as the undercurrent. 

It’s a shame because the first half of the novel declines to conform to any convention and is all the richer for it. Fortunately, the emotional resonance is not completely lost and the tumultuous feeling of an intense first love remains the defining aspect of this extraordinary novel.