‘One night an eighteen-year-old Irish girl, recently arrived in London to attend drama school, meets an older man —’
The blurb of The Lesser Bohemians sounds like the sort of novel that you’d find in an airport bookstore – a racy story fallow with clinches. Fortunately, Eimear McBride’s work transcends the dull blurb. As not only has McBride subverted a literary trope, her writing style has reinvented the fundamentals of grammar. The effect is simply stunning. The story is breathtakingly bleak and sensual in equal measure.
McBride has said in interviews that she admires James Joyce’s work and this is immediately apparent from the first page of her novel. The only punctuation she has used is full stops and there are a lot of them. Sentences are more like fragments. At first, I found this disorientating, as I mentally corrected the glaring omissions of punctuation. However, it quickly becomes apparent that while the novel has broken every rule, it holds strong to a set of rules that McBride has created.
This approach to storytelling allows the reader inside protagonist Eily’s head, which gives the story a sense of immediacy, as the events feel like they are unfurling in the most unexpected ways. Eily’s thoughts wrap around one another, both when she is sober and during ‘the odd chemical whirl.’ This access to Eily’s thoughts creates intimacy in the sex scenes. While there are the Bad Sex awards, McBride is unlikely to ever be nominated for them as she skilfully avoids the cringe inducing anatomically exacting descriptions and instead explores the spectrum of emotions that can occur during sex.
While at first appearances the novel seems completely at odds with the conventions of English, The Lesser Bohemians is ultimately a truer reflection of how we use language, as how often are we struck with a single, complete idea? Thoughts accumulate, converge, ideas blossom from feelings and consequences, knowledge and exploration. Our thoughts tangle, we think several competing thoughts at once or we say one thing and mean another. English is both malleable and messy, it can get us into trouble and it can weasel us out of trouble. The characters spend a lot of time doing just that — getting into and out of trouble.
A major theme of the book is shame. The feeling of shame for actions taken or not taken or the actions of someone else thrust upon you. McBride’s writing style ensures that the tone is never preachy or moralising. It also makes it at times a difficult book to read, as the reader is privy to the each character’s disorientating spiral of shame. There were times I had to step back from the book, as it felt so raw and affecting. In one scene Eily wakes up after experiencing a night of dis-inhibition that resulted in her being sexually violated. Her feelings are swift and complicated. Her thoughts cannot be contained in a clear ordering of words and do not follow a logical sequence. Eventually she dissociates from herself, by thinking of herself in third person:
‘Shame fuses to silence letting the night maraud killing bit by useless hope of not being this girl. I was. Am. She is.’
The Lesser Bohemians is by no means a simple book nor should be it underestimated.