IMEAR MCBRIDE’s much anticipated new book comes with a distracting title. Bohemian is an anachronistic term, surviving mainly in its diminutive form (boho) in the fashion industry.
It’s hard to think of the modern equivalent of the writer Gerard de Nerval who walked around 19th-century Paris with a lobster on a leash.
The characters in McBride’s second novel may have artistic pretensions but their pursuits are extremely conventional. They use their freedom to drink, take drugs, and enjoy the sexual merry-go-round. Lesser in this case is surely an understatement.
The book recounts the relationship between 18-year old Irish drama student Eily and Stephen, a successful older actor with a lurid past.
Although studying plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Eily is “innocent of the work of balcony and beds” and is eager to banish her “bloody virginity”.
Stephen is a willing accomplice. “Let’s find out what works,” he suggests as he guides her towards The Joy Of Sex.
It’s set in the London of the mid-1990s with the pubs, bedsitters, and squats of Camden Town, Chalk Farm, and Kentish Town providing the background for most of the action.
There’s much messy coupling, a lot of drinking, and an inordinate amount of smoking.
The opening scenes where Eily is introduced to sex are well done. Over a series of encounters she moves from clumsiness and pain to pleasurable consummation. Their sexual encounters are experienced in graphic detail and rarely have we been permitted such intimate glimpses of what’s going on in a woman’s head as she begins to experience the delights of the flesh.
Mind you there’s little romance in much of the sex or in the milieu. Grubby apartments, dirty feet, and bloody condoms all feature.
Eily is no ordinary love-smitten ingenue. When her lordly lover leaves her in the lurch for a period — as he does a few times, she hits the drink and drugs and indulges in deeply disturbing one night stands.
These unsettling scenes involve abuse and even violence and contain echoes of similar sexual abasement in A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing.
There’s even an oblique reference to the earlier work: “I become what I become, a form of thing.”
McBride does not believe in “wideawake language, cut-and-dry grammar, and go-ahead plot”.
She takes Joyce’s view that much of human experience must be communicated obliquely to capture its true flavour.
Those who adjusted to the syntactical quirkiness and the unique pointillist style of her first novel will have no problem tuning in to this one — which contains much of the same. It’s the language of fleeting impressions — thoughts captured in a dab or two of words.
Anything that’s not interior monologue is rendered as reported speech.
Her work needs to be approached with an openness to this unique voice and a willingness to take the time to adjust to it. There may be lacunae and occasional impenetrability but it’s not Finnegans Wake, although tellingly that is a book much admired by McBride.
While in some ways this novel is more accessible, and immediately enjoyable, it lacks the unity and structural cohesion of A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing....
In the first half of the book we view the world through Eily’s eyes. Around halfway through there’s a lengthy interlude (around 70 pages) where the lovers are lying together and Stephen recounts his life story.
It’s a tale of parental abuse, incest, drug addiction, disastrous relationships, and salvation via a homosexual interlude. McBride in a recent email described this as “the centre of the novel”. If so, I fear that the centre doesn’t hold. It’s as if we’ve been
brought into a different story and the intensity of Eily’s romantic saga is diminished.
You can’t help but wonder whether it should have been weaved into their various encounters rather than inserted in one great chunk.
Those sniffing after biographical links will note that McBride left the West of Ireland at 17 to study drama in London.
While the focus of her book is on the closed world of the relationship between Eily and Stephen, we do get occasional glimpses of life at drama school.
There are references to auditions, costume fittings, learning lines, and the petty politics of the stage — and there’s one scene where her director berates her for bringing her personal life to rehearsals.
Occasionally she relates the texts she’s studying to her own situation with references to Romeo and Juliet.
When I interviewed Eimear McBride a couple of years ago, she promised there would be a lot of sex in her next novel, and she’s kept her word.
Breaking free from the nets of Catholic morality and a restrictive rural background is a recurring theme in Irish novels — right back to The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien. But few writers can have traced the sexual development of the heroine in such visceral detail.
It’s hard to think of an Irish novel that’s more convincing about female sexuality, or more erotic.
At its heart, however, it’s a good old-fashioned love story. The self-destructive, tortured male is rescued by the love of an occasionally good woman. There’s even a sunset for them to head into in the final scene.
The power and originality of Eimear McBride’s first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and the international acclaim it enjoyed, make it a hard act to follow. How could she emulate that tour de force?
The answer is that she couldn’t. But she has produced another fine novel that is absorbing, disturbing, and entertaining.