Eimear McBride’s 2014 debut novel "A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing" created an international sensation, winning almost every major international literary award. Her new novel "The Lesser Bohemians" is an even stronger offering, a profound meditation on love and desire and its power to transform even the most damaged soul. Cahir O'Doherty talks to one of the most celebrated Irish writers in the world about her background and how success has – and has not – changed her.
Set in London in the mid 1990s, Eimear McBride’s new novel "The Lesser Bohemians" is a profound, nine-years-in-the-making meditation on the power of love to make or break you.
When 18-year-old Eily arrives in London to start a new life as a drama student away from Ireland for the first time she meets an attractive older man, 20 years her senior, and they begin a relationship that changes them both.
It’s the long awaited follow up to McBride’s wildly successful debut (if a book that took almost 10 years to get published can be called that) "A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing," but it’s even more accomplished and creatively daring.
Born in Liverpool, McBride, 39, spent her childhood in Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo and Co. Mayo before moving to London to begin her studies at the Drama Centre. There are intriguing overlaps between her fictional character in "The Lesser Bohemians" and her own life.
When Eily in the book meets Stephen he’s 38, already an accomplished working actor, handsome and considerate, and it becomes increasingly clear he’s quite spectacularly damaged for reasons that startle the reader when they are finally revealed.
"The Lesser Bohemians" is also a love letter of sorts to the city of London, which emerges as a character in the book, a place of both refuge and anonymity, where both of McBride’s brittle characters find the opportunity to confront themselves and each other in a healing journey they didn’t anticipate and that’s as complex as it is compelling.
But it’s McBride’s mastery of form as well as content that wows her critics. "The Lesser Bohemians" has a meteorological intensity. The language vividly conveys the interior consciousness of her characters, inviting and repelling you as the need arises.
But if the central relationship – between a young woman and an older man – sounds archetypal, then the complacency will be all your own. The truth is that there’s a breathtaking originality to McBride’s novel that arises directly from her own creative fearlessness.
It’s an undeniable fact that women have been writing some of the most accomplished Irish fiction of the last two decades, which is perhaps in part explained by the exhilaration of shedding the bone-deep oppression of the theocratic gulag in which they were raised. Could that be part of what has inspired these remarkable new works?
“I think there is sort of burning fury in Irish women, women who grew up in that – as you call it – religious gulag, who lived with the constant sense of their own wrongness, who have now come out into the daylight and just realized the sheer amount of pressure that they lived under,” McBride told our sister publication, the Irish Voice.
And that it was all for nothing, she says. “People suffered under that for nothing – nothing – but the fear of others. I think a lot of lot of women are angry and write about it. Part of the critical response that says, ‘Oh, those Irish tropes of guilt and sex are so boring,’ is kind of a backlash against that. It’s a shut up, we don’t want to hear you response.”
But Irish writers keep coming back to these sex and guilt and repression subjects because there is something that is still there that is not resolved yet, that needs to be looked at further, she says.
“The line that, it’s all just an old cliché, is another way of trying to shame people into being quiet. They say, we’ve heard it all before, we don’t want to hear it again. Well it’s still there, and when you write from that place that is not a political decision, that is something innate to who you are,” McBride says.
When women write about those kinds of experiences it’s not from wanting to have a go at the system, she adds. It’s from wanting to speak truthfully about the lives of women and represent that. And to not be nice about it.
“We were all reared in Ireland, particularly women, with such a strong idea of having to be nice. Of having to put everyone else’s feelings first, no matter what happened to you,” McBride recalls.
“You always had to be nice about it. The whole of Irish culture for men as well as women is to make nothing of whatever suffering is going on. To keep it to yourself and don’t make anyone else uncomfortable.”
Sex in the book is often explored as a way to share what is otherwise hidden – and the book is preoccupied as Irish society is with what is concealed and revealed. Eily’s journey is toward self-awareness, and along the way she meets and is enriched by a bond with an unexpected companion who is making a difficult journey of his own.
“The two characters function as sort of carnival mirrors of each other,” McBride explains. “They reflect back to each other so many different parts of their lives and their journeys. When it comes to the age disparity between them it’s because I wanted to examine the legacy of childhood trauma in the short term with her and in the long term with him.”
So they’re coming from completely different perspectives and they want completely different things, but the seed of what will come is sown in the conversation they have in that first meeting.
“The point of sex in the novel is these two people who cannot speak about what has happened to them in their lives form a physical bond – this is how they learn to communicate with each other. It’s how they come to care for each other. It’s how they learn to speak.”
The journey for both is away from the selves that they thought they were toward a different type of person. It comes through a sort of purging of the past. Could this be more Irish?
“Maybe that’s something that as a nation we’ve been going through for the past 20 years, coming out of that kind of darkness into a place where what happened can be spoken about for the first time. So maybe that’s what’s caught your attention there,” McBride says.
Bluntly speaking their own minds is something that young Irish women are not encouraged to do, so could that explain the fierce urgency of their – and McBride’s – works?
“It’s something that’s not encouraged, and women are still fighting for very basic levels of recognition of their legal status, of their bodies, of their ownership of their own bodies, and that’s shocking, that Irish women are still having to fight that fight now. At the same time it is not surprising to me.”
Last weekend McBride attended a literary event with novelist Edna O’Brien, and it was extraordinary to hear O’Brien talk about what she had to go through when she published "Country Girls," and that the fight is still there.
“It has evolved, but we are still fighting for the same things – for a voice and for recognition of our ownership of our own bodies. The struggle to find yourself amid all the noise of what your past has taught you to think you will be, or what the society that you grow up in expects you to be, how the individual creates themselves in the light of so much pressure. How a woman or a man learns to be,” McBride says.