Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

"The Lesser Bohemians" by Eimear McBride (Faber, 2016)


An 18 year old Irish girl, Eily, becomes a drama student in London. She quickly loses her virginity to a 38 year-old male actor, Stephen, a rake who's been in films. He's considerate when she's around, neglectful when she's not, sleeping with other women. She's excited by him - he's more experienced, well-known amongst the acting-community, with ideas about literature. He's writing a script. She sees him as a mentor, and maybe also as a kindred spirit. They spend the odd month apart because of commitments. She keeps wanting to meet him again. But she doesn't waste time meanwhile. She gets drunk/drugged, spends the night with 2 boys, feels bad about it in the morning, self-dehumanised. She slips away, knocks on his door at 7 a.m. for comfort. She discovers he was a junkie who's been clean for 16 years. He'd had sex with men and women. His daughter is 16! He's not seen her for 8 years. During sex Eily once imagines him as her father, wondering whether his emotions towards her are something to do with her being nearly her daughter's age. She was molested by a family friend when 5 or 6 years old.

On p.148 begins a long, conventionally styled monologue from him (essentially an autobiography) that ends on p.216. Both his parents remarried when he was 2. His mother was unstable. She hit him, starved herself and him, drugged him with sleeping pills, had sex with him. He took up acting almost as therapy, had a drug-induced heart attack at 22, then a suicide attempt. A male director who loved him saved him. His ex-wife + daughter suddenly disappeared to Vancouver. On p.216 Eily and the rake confess their mutual love - they're useful to each other too, therapy-wise. Parts of her drama course help her too. Then he transgresses again. And so does she. Why not? He decides they should split.

His ex comes over to talk to him about her problems with suddenly rebellious Grace, their daughter. In the final section it seems that Stephen and Eily are choosing a house together, big enough for Grace to stay in.


The plot sounds like a conventional enough story, albeit more sexually explicit than usual. The language, at least in the first half, is more playful though. Here are the starts of sections 1 and 2.

  • "I move. Cars move. Stock, it bends light. City opening itself behind. Here's to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.".
  • "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.".

My minimal translations are

  • "I move. Cars move. The Stock Market building bends light. The City opens itself behind me. Here's the place to be, for its life has bite, and it would be the start of mine."
  • "I am getting to London Liverpool Street on the train. My legs are fair jigged after halfway. I'm eating Dairy Milk on this Stansted Express and cannot care for stray sludge splinters in the face of England as I go by." (I can't translate "Lo lay". I presume "stray sludge splinters" is an impressionist description of views from the train, but it could describe the mess on the narrator's face after eating the chocolate - a reflection superimposed on the view from the train)

The devices used later include -

  • Extra/Missing Spacing - e.g. His eye makes my eye and I kno ww ho you are (p.111)
  • Inversion - e.g. Smoking only I (p.138)
  • Missing punctuation - e.g. You'll manage all the adulation, he says. Yes, I expect I will. Both go Anyway, then laugh and she But what brings you up to these wilds? When steps he to show me No! she says (p.120). Note also the "and she [said] But" to clarify who the speaker is.
  • Missing words - e.g. It is the evening and the last of bright. Streets still Saturday tawdry but up for the night. And lurch along we, like after the twelfth (p.109) (inversion too)
  • Smaller text - e.g. Hum walls of the well-known once I'm in. Is it only me? No. Must for everyone (p.8) It's her inner voice. (Missing words too)

Often these are used in combination. It's a flexible style. Here are some situations -

  • Coital: Every muscle in him relaxing and tensing. Getting to and going in. As though kissing can barely hold the line. You're my beautiful you're my     A helpless smile like he knows I know what's happening to him inside. And I do. Me too and I. Keep with him. Like as we have always ben struggling to find the find the Come with me, he says and I, holding on as it rises, the high tide. Him and. live words I can't make out. Cracking with the. Slam. other. Let each other. Out. Just being together. (p.146)
  • Post-coital: I though that was never going stop       godthatwas wh wwww   I can hardly speak. So kiss me and kisses me. Be off all that stuff. Just take the pleasure of being young under his hands. Safe in the knowledge. Full of his heat. Forgetting time passing and the sleep that we'll need. Separation ahead. Touch. Breathe how he breathes (p.126)
  • Meeting at a station: Trolley guiding to, then from again. Is. With his film cut now all grown in I Hey! Hey, the smile of his see and following down to the end of rail, me. You're here. Why are you here? (p.133)
  • Making love in her room, hoping the landlady won't hear: Kiss him as he's about to, then it's just us two again, finding how we creaklessly can and we mostly do - mostly he finds - while I hold him, shaking in the silence. He makes me and waits. Lets himself once I have    and and    The weight of him on me (p.80)
  • Drunk with a female friend: What for money though? What for geld? Nun on me Not twenty of the pence. Pounds, she finds. We've started so we'll finish. Bitch of a baby still this night. (p.82)

It can be poetic, as in "Shame fuses to silence letting the night maraud, killing bit by useless hope of not being this girl I was. Am. She is" (p.102). At the end here the narrator realises she's changed - so much so that she depersonalises.

It can be conventional in syntax and punctuation, as in "Do you think I don't understand? I know all about have a good time. Having it and having it until a good time's all there is, until it's not a good time, until it's everything turned to shit and you can't believe the things you've done" (p.102)

What gains and losses derive from the book's treatment? What does this style of language do to reading strategies? It depends of course on the reader. I think I read a little slower but I didn't backtrack more - except for going back a word or two when a speaker changed without an obvious indicator. Little is obscure. I found that I paused, puzzled, sometimes not so much struggling to understand what's going on, more wondering why the tricks were being used.

  • At times it sounds like telegrammese, like a non-English speaker struggling with articles and verb tenses.
  • The non-standard language is less transparent, so readers need to process more, and engage more than usual with language - no bad thing, but some readers might give the book up early.
  • The events are less clear than usual - sometimes resolution may need to be deferred indefinitely.
  • More than is usual, readers are given the raw thoughts, but they have a less than usual notion of how the narrator might sound.
  • It's sometimes mimetic (reader-confusion corresponding to puzzled character). Sometimes the reader is confused though the characters aren't (it also happens in "in media res" sections of mainstream pieces). In particular, the characters in conversation are clear about what is thought rather than said, and who says what, but readers might not be

The tricks are used rather unevenly too, which puzzled me.

More Examples

  • The main character enters her new lodgings - Hum walls of the well-known once I'm in. Is it only me? No. Must for everyone (p.8). So, she hums some old songs to protect herself? Why is the second sentence in smaller text? "Must for everyone" means "It must be the same for everyone", but why the riddling? Does this bring the reader closer to the character in the book, to their use of language? Does the character ever think (let alone say) "Must for everyone"?
  • On p.9 there's - Yes I'll be fired glass where stray sand has been. Sifted and lit. Here you'll make what you'll be. Broken mirrors are waste in a broke society. which has conventional syntax. I like it as poetry, but whose poetry is it? The character's?
  • Also on p.9 there's - So glory Bye to the left behind which I presume is double-edged word-play - saying goodbye to the life she's left behind, but also with hints of 'glory be to my old life/religion'
  • On p.21 there's "Ninety I it, the afternoon we're set to rehearse" which doesn't make sense to me. Later on the same page there's "Lullish the sun through a scant cherry tree threading meek in and out of the blow", which has a Joycean lyricism.
  • "That's pretty good but       the way you treat your books. Bollocks to the books, he says, touching my face. It is the first time we have and I go quick to the thrillpleasureread (p.27). I noted the inter-word space. That final sentence may mean "After they touch for the first time she quickly changes the subject by going on about the joys of reading."
  • Fright I. He holds to. The make of his lip, turning into my own, turn until I kiss back (p.27) - "Fright I" means "I'm frightened". "He holds to" might mean "He holds me to comfort me"
  • Redd out my knickers with the tights rolled in. Quick unpick and put them on. Bra. Dress. Thanks for the dressing gown. No problem, sugar? Actually I'm going to head. And this the what turns him So you know your way back? (p.33) - "Redd"? Why no full stop after "him"? What is "the" doing in "And this the what turns him". I presume the sentence means "And this is what makes him turn"
  • It's alright, he says touching my arm. Adds no more or else to that, for which I am grateful, as soon for his gentle snore (p.34) - I understood this, but puzzled over why a more standard phrasing wasn't used. Why "or else"?
  • And I drift in under where/ She walks the tongue of the world, narrow as a road./ Far below where earth is and where fire goes./ Unrippled now./ Weeds/ Dry and frei./ But the weight of./ Banished poor famished eyes/ lake music (p.35) - stream of semi-consciousness. Fair enough, though why so random?
  • These are not things barred to me any more. These are me as well. And the. But the. Fleadh wears down. Knees from kneeling. The time on my own, until my once becomes like not at all (p.38) - most of this is comprehensible, though it could be expressed more clearly. "Fleadh"? Don't know.
  • Enjoying it? Yes I. Really? he says I thought I saw you nodding off? I wasn't      it's just my first time      I mean      you know      I was looking around. He solemn nods but somewhere smiles So how have you been? I scald-cheek Fine      and you? Fine, he says Coming out for a smoke? an unlit in his fingers. No, I No thanks, and go at reading biogs. like War and Peace. He loiters further but I am shame sealed. (p.40) - I had the trouble with "and go at reading biogs. like War and Peace.", wondering what "go at" means ("have a go at"?), and initially misinterpreting "like" as a verb (it just means that the biogs are long). Why the "biogs. like" punctuation and lack of capitals?
  • His frown goes scowl. Come on, let's not start this. I'm only asking. His narrow eyes Okay I did, now let's leave it at that (p.64). Or "His frown turns to a scowl ... His eyes narrow ..."
  • sacking the costume rails for her perfect nightgown. Find the what that makes me she (p.137). Or ... finding something that will help me adopt the character's persona.
  • Where miracles were, only prayers now (p.260) - A nearly conventional sentence.


I think the strengths of the novel are the immediacy of the description and reactions, plus the presentation of the complex/muddled personality of Stephen. Much of the time the distorted language doesn't help. It doesn't do much harm, but the dialogue in particular might as well be normalised. And were the first half of the book normalised, would it suffer the same fate as the second part, becoming a fairly standard "little girl in big city" meets "rogue with a troubled heart of gold" story?

Other reviews

  • Jacqueline Rose (In The Lesser Bohemians, there is scarcely a page untouched by the linguistic fall-out of sex. ... McBride has said that her aim is ‘to make language cope with and more fully describe that part of life that is destroyed once it begins to get put into straightforward grammatical language’ ... What is constant is McBride’s unswerving commitment to unplugged syntax as it veers between common and uncommon sense. But while Girl was virtually no commas and all stops, commas proliferate in the new book, one of whose most striking syntactic tics is the use of elongated, unfilled spaces between words. ... Before she was a novelist, McBride was the aspiring actor she portrays in her novel. Both of her novels are flecked with streaks of autobiography (her father, like Eily’s, died when she was eight and, in relation to Girl, she has described the death of her brother as the most devastating event in her life). ... In a rare distancing from Joyce, she describes Finnegans Wake, alongside Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, as ‘obscure’ and ‘obtuse’ for the non-specialist reader (‘kamikaze missions’). Instead, she uses the simplest vocabulary in the hope that this will allow readers to make the complexities of the syntax their own as if the narrative was running inside their minds)
  • Lara Feigel (What is most remarkable, and it’s not something we could see in the more consistently destructive world of A Girl, is McBride’s sensitivity to moment-to-moment shifts in feeling. She allows any conversation or sexual encounter to be a journey where the characters cannot know where they are going or who they will be when they get there. ... In the second half,... it feels difficult to move on to accepting the narrative convention that we talk in paragraphs and can recall the paragraphs of those around us. There is also the question of balance: the novel becomes a little baggy at this point)
  • Max Liu (I cannot recall having such diametrically opposed feelings about the different parts of one novel as I do in the case of The Lesser Bohemians. ... In her first year at college, when she might otherwise be examining her own experiences, she’s swamped by his problems. It’s an interesting idea that’s handled clumsily)
  • Jeanette Winterson (The run-ons of speech characteristic of her style can be overused. Not breaking up the conversational dialogue leaves the reader with pages of dense text and no coming up for air. “Girl” deployed short chapters with plenty of space around the text, space that supported the terse sentence structure. Here that taut beauty can get lost in the nonstopness of the monologue that is the dialogue. Stephen’s own voice suffers in this style. )

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