Review: The Lesser Bohemians

Benjamin Davies finds emotional intimacy marred by gimicky style

Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is devoted to untidiness. Not a romantic untidiness, such as we usually mean by “bohemian”. It’s just what it is. McBride is good at creating that sensation. She approaches her themes with just the right amounts of nuance and candidness, so that the darker aspects of the novel don’t feel gratuitous or put on for shock. As a piece of fiction, however, this book—like its characters—has significant problems with consistency.

The plot is simple: in the 1990s Eily, the narrator, has moved from Ireland to London to attend drama school. She meets and has lots of sex with Stephen, a middle-aged quasi-famous actor. More time seems to be spent in bed than out of it. Gradually, more of their respective backgrounds emerge, containing histories of disturbing sexual and substance abuse. The subsequent traumas cause their relationship to swing from the verge of marriage to fuming fits of infidelity on what seems like a weekly basis.

Narrated in stream-of-consciousness—that most slippery of terms and practises—one of the strengths of The Lesser Bohemians is how close things can seem. Some places, characters and moments are made vivid by a kind of layering. Eily adds thought to thought, impression to impression, until things feel quite real. This works very well in tactile—mostly sex—scenes, where her voice backgrounds the boring fact that things are touching, and pays attention to the feelings that blossom in response. These feelings become layered, too, and the maturing of Eily and David’s relationship, as well as the personalities of some other characters, gives the book real emotional depth.

There is, however, a big caveat to all this. Stylistically, this novel feels like a first draft. The basic idea of the style remains stream-of-consciousness, but McBride toys around with it in a way that seems more uncertain than confidently experimental. There are a few paragraphs wholly in italics, and small clauses which appear to be background thoughts are in a reduced text size. All-caps words make occasional appearances, and, most noticeably, sentences are split up by great blank gaps, as if McBride accidentally leans on the space-bar while writing.

Related  OxFolk Reviews: 'Ignite'

These things happen with little regularity or much of a detectable pattern. Furthermore, the texture of the narrative changes quite frequently. The opening pages were exciting: they felt like the deep end of the stream. The thoughts were wandering and interruptive, and Eily seemed more sensitive to her environment—noticing the names of pubs and things on signs. This disappears quite quickly, however, and Eily’s voice becomes relatively banal. Perhaps this reflects her becoming used to London. But in the context of this change of voice, the formatting quirks start to feel like a gimmicky attempt to remind the reader that YOU are READING stream-of-consciousness, and not just a conventional narrative with jolty syntax.

Halfway through, Stephen is given 60-or-so pages to narrate his horrific upbringing— this part really divides critics. The story is beautifully told, and McBride really manages the voice well. By itself, I felt Stephen’s monologue was very successful, and a touching piece of storytelling. As a part of the whole, however, it sadly just throws the style off balance—returning to Eily’s voice felt more like a toilsome task than a pleasure.

This was a strong story, and McBride deserves some credit for sticking with a technique that still isn’t that common—her massively hyped A Girl is a Half-formed Thing also used stream-of-consciousness. But McBride’s adept handling of theme, and skillful characterisation, promises great things, and The Lesser Bohemians isn’t one of them.