Eimear McBride's The Lesser Bohemians took the author nine years to write
Irish writer who was hailed as a modern James Joyce revisits her 'Cool Britannia' days
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When Eimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing burst onto the scene in 2013, it was immediately lauded for its radical style and subversive story. But for McBride, this wasn’t an overnight success.
Despite the international bestseller status, the critical fanfare declaring the Irish writer a modern-day James Joyce, getting this book published was no small feat. McBride was only 27 in 2003 when she completed the manuscript about a young woman’s relationship with her dying brother, written in a fractured style that played with structure, grammar and narrative. Despite the stack of rejections, McBride persevered; 10 years later she found a publisher willing to take a risk on such a challenging read.
Meanwhile, in 2007, three years after completing A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, McBride started working a new novel. She hadn’t written since then; it took time to get her “writing muscles back in working order.” While her first book only took six months to write, The Lesser Bohemians — which was inspired after McBride and her husband moved back to Ireland from London — took nine years. McBride, who hails from a small Irish town, was very homesick for her adopted city, and began thinking a lot about when she first arrived in London as a teenager during the 1990s to attend drama school. It was the heralded decade of “Cool Britannia,” of Britpop bands like Blur and Oasis and the emergence of artists like Damien Hirst and designer Alexander McQueen.
“It was a very particular atmosphere at that time. There was a lot of things going on, a lot of change, and also for myself,” McBride says. “When you’re in your late teens and you move away by yourself for the first time, you have tremendous romanticism for life in the big city.”
The Lesser Bohemians gets deep inside the head of 18-year-old Eilis, a teenager from a small Irish town, who after arriving in London to attend drama school, meets Stephen, an older theatre actor of some renown, and engages in a volatile love affair. Though the novel is far from autobiographical, McBride was inspired by her own memories.
“It’s such a huge moment in life when you start making decisions that will affect the rest of your life and the person that you will become,” she says. “It’s very powerful and you’re also very vulnerable, but you don’t realize that until much later in life. As a teenager you have all these emotions and your mind is racing but you don’t have any sense of perspective.”
The Lesser Bohemians tracks the relationship between the two characters mostly through their physical relationship. Each sexual encounter is described in explicit detail, but always through Eilis’ stream of consciousness, whether she is exhilarated by the experience, or devastated by jealousy. When asked about whether writing sex scenes are a challenge, McBride laughs, acknowledging the pitfalls — no author wants to end up on the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction shortlist.
“I approached it the same way I approach everything else. I knew it had to be about the connection of the body and the internal life of the characters,” she says. “Writing about physical activities is pretty run of the mill. But when the sex is there to express character, there to help the reader learn more about who these people are, then that’s the point it becomes interesting.”
McBride was aware that she was setting up an archetypal relationship — a naïve young woman falling for an older, sexually experienced man — but she bursts that paradigm by giving Stephen a long monologue that will both shock and build empathy, once again playing with readers’ expectations. “For me, it’s about finding the humanity in those situations,” she says. “This is not just one of those stories, and he’s not just one of those guys.”