Hogarth – Crown Publishing, September 20, 2016.
McBride won the Baileys Women’s Prize for her first novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and this novel is sure to be considered as well. The Lesser Bohemians is similar in theme and tone, but it is a fresh new story about a young girl finding her way in a big city for the first time. We are plunged immediately into the narrator’s mind, feeling her emotions on an instantly visceral level.
Eighteen-year-old Eily arrives in London for her first year as a drama student. She is filled with the usual hopes of fame and fortune, but she struggles to fit in with her peers. Finally, Eily starts to make friends and create a place for herself in the city, when she meets a much older man who turns everything upside down. Stephen, an established actor, is almost twice her age, but he is damaged in a way that resonates with Eily’s own past experiences. There is a darkness in both of them that provides them with an instant connection.
Stephen is handsome and charismatic, and there is a certain inevitability to their romantic relationship. They move quickly, and the innocence of Eily’s passion is in clear contrast to Stephen’s own sordid experiences – although she does not learn the full story until much later. This novel is most of all an examination of the forgiveness of love, in spite of the deeply flawed main characters.
McBride’s use of language is often difficult, as we are immersed inside Eily’s head. Her first person narration is made up almost entirely of Irish colloquial slang and odd, staccato punctuation. There are moments of clarity, but it is often way too much effort to read the quirky, slangy language. Eventually, I was able to get into the flow of words, and an almost poetic rhythm took over – but it took a long time to get there.
The writing starts to relax about halfway through, as if the author stopped trying so hard to make it difficult and clever. As we become immersed in Stephen’s story, I found myself increasingly caught up in the plot in a way that was lacking before. It was an interesting editorial choice to have Stephen tell his story to Eily over the course of one night – it’s risky because it might not have worked, but it was actually my favourite part of the novel, and it made Eily more sympathetic as well.
Stephen is clearly damaged and emotionally scarred. Eily’s childhood scars are not as clear, maybe because she has not fully dealt with them yet – that is likely why she is drawn to Stephen and his ability to accept his past. Stephen’s past is more obviously damaged and shocking – it is extreme, yet still believable. This novel is brutal and depressing, but it manages to find a sense of redemption in the end. Eily and Stephen experience the power of love to heal, and not just in a cheesy, Lifetime movie kind of way – their story is dark, gritty and passionately real.
I received this book from Hogarth – Crown Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.