Eimear McBride is a literary type of celebrity, causing much commotion with her debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which was published in 2013 by a small independent press in Norwich after 9 years of rejection. Once the book hit the market, the public reacted passionately, either loving it or hating it… and yet this is the biggest compliment to an author – to cause a stir in readers; to make them active agents rather than impassive consumers of text. She went on to receive many well-deserved prizes: The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize, among others.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a book about trauma – the moment of trauma – and this theme is explored in both form and content, deeply penetrating the internal traumatic experience. Here McBride rejects verbiage for sense, sound and appearance on the page; and she often reverses letter order, so the reader is required to focus, to pull themselves in.
After three years, Eimear McBride released her second novel The Lesser Bohemians, and this week she came to Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas’ autumn programme to talk more about the book. She was joined in conversation by Helen Legg, Director of Spike Island.
Although there are thematic crossovers in both novels, The Lesser Bohemians is a book about life after trauma, about survival, a post-A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing or a sliding-door alternative, if you like. Unlike the former, which is a claustrophobic and entirely internalised experience, the latter is more about going out into life.
An eighteen-year-old Irish girl, recently arrived in London to attend drama school, meets an older man – a well-regarded actor in his own right. While she is naïve and thrilled by life in the big city, he is haunted by more than a few demons, and the clamorous relationship that ensues risks undoing them both. A captivating story of passion and innocence, joy and discovery, set against the vibrant atmosphere of 1990s London, The Lesser Bohemians glows with the anxieties of growing up, of becoming a woman whilst exploring a powerful new love.
What is noticeable in the book is the presence of sex – from one-night stands, casual sex, to passionate sex and make-up sex – the whole lot written in an honest and believable fashion. As feelings fluctuate, the sex changes as well – just like in real life. When questioned on her intentions, McBride laughed and said she didn’t intend a vulgar book, but the characters required it. The couple gets to know each other through sex and, most importantly, the practice of sex allows the female character to discover sexuality. Despite not planning a feminist book, McBride admitted that the theme of female sexuality and its false representation in the literature canon is of a major concern for her, one that she discovered once she started writing.
The story unravels in a course of one year – it turns out a lot can happen in a year, McBride said – and is richly coloured by 90s London. Going against the trend of portraying bleak Irish experiences in English waters, The Lesser Bohemians has taken on a light touch and a positive experience of immigration during the 90s. McBride characterised it as ‘an anti-Irish immigrant novel’.
The book is also full of art references, from Schoenberg to Tarkovsky, Dostoyevsky… In addition to serving as a vehicle that propels the female character who’s starving for experience to discovery and ‘becoming’, it also serves as a journey through a human experience of art – “an unsophisticated one”, said McBride, one that allows you to be changed by it.
The Lesser Bohemians is a multi-layered book: it’s a coming-of-age story of love, passion and sexuality, growing up, joy and self-discovery. Eimear McBride is a rare contemporary literary treat: an author that is not only a master wordsmith, but an inventor of a new language expression.