They say writing the second novel or recording the second album is one of the toughest challenges an artist faces. It is the curse that shadows the blessing of a brilliant debut.
How could Patti Smith ever follow up on Horses, containing as it did more than 20 years of bottled artistry released in a surge into a culture who so needed that voice to rise? And, in a similar way, how could Eimear McBride’s second novel The Lesser Bohemians ever stand fairly beside, let alone scale the heights of her debut A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing.
That debut knocked many sideways. Stunned by the originality of this young author’s prose (though there’s a clear hat tip to Patrick McCabe and even Jack Kerouac and his bubble flow before) the awards poured in and rightly so.
It was a tour-de-force, tearing at the reader’s flesh through every turned page. That moment when we suddenly discovered how to read her; to grasp for ourselves the disjointed, non-linear voice and see, through the half-spat sentences, the full horror of the narrative’s reality beyond.
It was darkness, mesmerically and addictively spun. So, how could any author follow that?
The Lesser Bohemians – An Overview
The Lesser Bohemians tells the story of a young Irish woman come to London to train to be an actor. The book takes place over the first year of her studies, though little of the drama takes place at school.
She falls for an older actor with a life of secrets bound to him tightly enough they might appear invisible to his sillhouette. And like any of us who would carry a secret never told, he lives with the hope that they will remain invisible. Inevitably, they do not.
What unfolds from those early pages is an utterly unconventional love story.
Interestingly—though extreme and intense in the style we may now begin to consider a signature of this author—this love story will no doubt ring more bells of true-to-life familiarity with many readers than any Disney-esque tale of pink perfection. It is love, but not as we would project or wish it to be.
From infidelity to heartbreak, things we regret saying to moments we will immortal, this is a story of love that carries you along from moments of ‘no, no, don’t do that’ to brief reliefs brought by McBride’s descriptions of tenderness and blissful loving ecstasy.
Set in 1990’s London, it is almost inevitable there are drugs and drink and the romanticism of lonely cigarettes smoked in the early day’s light of a near derelict bedroom. It is the kind of soiled, intoxicating perfection only cities like London can stage and still make enticing in such a twisted ‘it isn’t good for me but somehow I still yearn for it’ way.
The psychological darkness, particularly later in the novel, seems at time cruely unrelenting.
I read the final quarter of the 300-and-some pages in one sitting, simply because I had too. I couldn’t leave the dark temptations of those poetic, cut-short lines lingering in my day – perhaps because they felt like mirrors that bordered a little to close to narratives I have known.
She lays out self-destruction and dark excesses in a way that makes them seem nostalgic; they become temptingly hedonistic rather than the poison they felt and were at the time. It is the gift of this writer and her mastery of a most unusual writing style.
‘A writer for whom language is an end not a means, a beginning not an end.’
These words are part of a review by Jeanette Winterson and they adorn the back cover of the edition I read. And they point to one of the reasons I have such respect for McBride.
There are two investigations going on here: the narrative—how do I tell a good story?—and the language—how do the words do more than simply join the dots?
There are few ‘great’ writers who don’t, in some way, toy with language itself. Oscar Wilde, Margaret Attwood, any poet worth treasuring, this play with the very architecture of written meaning is what keeps at least me in awe.
How they distill so much colour and meaning and human existence into the clarity of the voices who tell their tales. It is a remarkable talent and one McBride clearly has.
Even in lines as conspicuous as, ‘And the sun is its worst self, making a lovely day’ contain such a lot. Even more so as McBride asks universally resonant questions then answers them with the sheer grace of the wisest poets:
How have I so easily gotten so much wrong? But whistling down from the blue night it comes: I had not grasped that the sun still rose after I love you.
This is language that deserves a second look, the studied slowness we attend to poetry with. And yet, it is language that must be read first at a pace in order to be carried along essentially at the speed of thought.
And this is McBride’s real gift: beyond the distinctive Irish voice, heart-wrenching episodes and the ability to dive us deep into darkness while feeling like we’re skipping gayly along, it is that she writes with the density of poetry but the speed of everyday thought.
These are lines that need to be read first at a skimming pace to feel their lifelike delivery, then revisited to savour the rich complexity wrapped within each one.
A difficult second album?
This is an affecting read. More or less than her first? All I can say is it’s different.
In some ways, this may be a novel that’s more relatable and, in that way, more personal to many of us.
Then again, her first was told from within and only from within—we became the narrator through reading—whereas this has enough different voices and narrative lines intertwining that I was left feeling like I’d been both Eily, the main character and narrator, and someone looking in on the bigger picture.
It would have been near impossible to repeat the same shock that her debut created. We readers have learned to read her and, as a result, this novel felt less of a language challenge to read. But perhaps I say that because I had to work to find her voice in that first and, having done so, could pick this one up with greater ease.
The language certainly seems to have (cliche alert) matured. There is a variety in language at times here that rarely surfaced in the first. Different voices, singing clearly in full sentences, alongside streams of thought and fractured rememberings.
It leaves me wondering where the author may go next.
Will she look to write with a different lead voice: non-Irish, perhaps not female?
Will she write work that doesn’t need to delve to such darkness and intensity, or is that a necessity container for this kind of language?
Whatever, McBride writes next, be sure to pre-order it. In the meantime, I urge you to pick The Lesser Bohemians up and let it carry you through it’s rough-edged, cliff-filled, plummeting and amphetimined roller coaster.