“Just” a Love Story
Eimear McBride’s new novel is a remarkable convergence of language and love
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It’s impossible to talk or think about Eimear McBride’s new novel, The Lesser Bohemians, without acknowledging the author’s language (which is true also of her first book, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing). She curls her way around, into, and through sentences like a cat sliding through cracks in doorways and windows, wriggling out of the confines of familiar grammar and syntax and into something far freer and often more beautiful. At its core, however, The Lesser Bohemians is not an examination of language, nor a Joycean effort at style upstaging content. It is a love story.
The narrator — unnamed for much of the book — is a young woman, just eighteen, who’s left Ireland to attend drama school in London. Her world is full of new experiences, first among them being London itself, in all its glory, which she describes as she goes through it:
Lo lay London Liverpool Street I am getting to on the train. Legs fair jigged from halfway there. Dairy Milk on this Stansted Express and cannot care for stray sludge splinters in the face of England go by. Bishop’s Stortford. Tottenham Hale. I could turn I could turn. I cannot. Too late for. London. Look. And a sky all shifts to brick. Working through its tunnels, now walking on its streets, a higher tide of people than I have ever seen and — any minute now — In. Goes. Me.
This thrilling introduction to the narrator is telling of the following sequences, as she continues to discover, with eager trepidation, the life she has chosen for herself. Drama school means hard work, yes, but also independence. Renting a bed-sit with a no-boys-allowed rule, the narrator lives alone with her own thoughts, which she tries to escape often with the help of booze, drugs, and new friends. But she has one thing that she is eager to be rid of in all this — her virginity. When she meets an older, dashing man in the Prince Albert, a pub that will become significant in the memories it carries for them and the reader alike, she goes for it. She flirts, kisses, goes home with, and loses her virginity to this man. He is a fairly well-known actor, more than twice her age, and rather a conquest for our narrator.
The story centers around their love affair, which begins as nothing more than sex, first painful and not great, but increasingly desirous, hot, and heavy. And, eventually, it becomes something far more than just sex, just random fucks in the drab room that this broody famous actor rents. Of course, the young woman and the older man is a trope if there ever was one, but Eimear McBride handles these people atypically, gracefully, and she addresses each and every possible cliché within the characters’ thoughts and talks. They discuss the age gap, the impossibility he sees in their being together and the hopes she pins on him and the revenge fucking and the shame and the chasing around of one another — none of this is left to some rom-com-like montage but gone through with a fine-tooth comb so that each event feels self-consciously monumental for the participants. For example, when the narrator returns from her Christmas holiday and finds that her lover has another woman in his room, she both reacts and is aware at once of her reaction:
if I’d known you were back tonight You’d have done it yesterday? Sorry, bad timing that’s all but I’m really glad to see you. So tell her to go. I can’t do that, he says Not now. Fuck you, I say backing down the path, Wait — him quick checking up behind — How about tomorrow? We could meet in the morning and have the day. I turn sharp though and hurt his gate by the looks of the rust crumbs fly. Come back, he loud whispers Wait, hang on! But when I don’t the front door shuts and from across his street I look up. There. His room. The lowliest bulb. Skewed curtain light streaming and what beyond? Then even it goes out. You bollocks! I scream I feel like screaming but mostly that I’m such a child as the rain comes roaring down.
The first half of the book dwells on the difficulties of figuring out what they are to one another, but it never gets dull, not for a moment. The second half of the book explains much of what happens in the first because at the emotional crux of the book, the actor bares his soul to the narrator, telling her in plain language — for it is not the narrator’s voice but his, and McBride excellently distinguishes between speech and narration despite the absolute lack of quotation marks — about the horrible childhood he had, his years of addiction, and the story behind his estranged daughter and the woman he had her with. Many eighteen-year-olds wouldn’t be able to handle the things he tells the narrator, but she’s had her own rough childhood and bears the brunt of this confession with grace.
It is only after this that names begin emerging: the narrator’s is revealed, and after some more pain and time the actor’s is too. The emotional resonance that is in the act of identifying unnamed characters cannot be understated, which is why I refuse to name them here — the expression of their selfhood is in their names, so much so that the narrator’s full name isn’t revealed until very, very close to the end, when she is secure, knowing herself and her lover as well as she can for the time being.
What’s possibly most incredible about this novel is that it is a love story. Front to back, when looked at in its entirety, the plot is simple: young woman falls for older man. He resists falling in love with her. He falls in love, hates himself for it, tries to shed her and his feelings for her. Conflict. But the way Eimear McBride writes makes what is a relatively simple story feel as weighty, important, and visceral as love stories are to us in life. Much like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which also has a simple plot when laid out as a sequence of events, McBride makes beauty and importance in everyday reality.
While some people may find McBride’s book cryptic, it’s really not — her words are the connective tissue between a love story and its reader, and while they may take some getting used to, are the stuff of dreams, allowing us to sink into the lushness of language.