Dangerous Liaisons: Intimacy Undone

Eimear McBride, The Lesser Bohemians

Faber, 320pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780571327850

reviewed by Thea Hawlin

It is hard not to be awed by Eimear McBride’s follow-up to her award-winning debut A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013). Although echoes of her previous novel are clear, McBride presents a wholly new kind of story in The Lesser Bohemians. Like in Girl our protagonist is female, again on the cusp of adulthood, ‘before I became what I’ve become – a form of a thing,’ but the process of formation in Bohemians is stronger. Rather than remaining ‘half-formed’ or dissolving completely, as in Girl, in Bohemians we are shown the clashes and collisions that can result not in destruction but in formation. One’s character and life can be shaped by many things, and in her terse Oedipal tale, where the boundaries of relationships of all kinds are tested, McBride artfully addresses the way in which two half-formed people are able to make themselves whole.

Writing about sex when presenting a burgeoning relationship was inevitable. In many ways McBride’s characters come to know each other ‘through their bodies;’ in her own words they ‘arrive at intimacy from the opposite direction.’ Writing on erotica for The Times Literary Supplement earlier this year, McBride confessed her own unease at the stigma of writing about the ‘notoriously difficult subject.’ Yet it is perhaps precisely because McBride has clearly read and been exposed to so much bad writing about sex that her own take comes completely into its own. Her encounters are vivid, but the scenes always serve a purpose within the narrative: ‘I’m interested in other people’s ideas about sex and what bodies –  and minds – do when they are involved in it.’ Intriguingly she doesn’t shy away from issues of abuse and violence as her critique of contemporary erotica might suggest she should; instead she tackles them head on. Her female protagonist, Eily, is a young, sexually inexperienced drama student; her lover, Stephen (a hint to Joyce’s Dedalus, one wonders?) is a violent troubled older actor. You could hardly get a more clichéd scene for the drama to unfold with a tormented affair, yet she pulls it off.

McBride creates a new terminology for sex. The language with which she tackles the complexities of sexuality and the emotional tugs such connections have save her entirely from the trap of the ‘Bad Sex’ writing the Literary Review condemns each year. The experience of reading Bohemians is, like with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, a revelation. Once again McBride moves her reader not simply through the tale she is telling but through the mechanisms via which she conveys her story. At times her prose is so tightly woven it seems to question the very nature of form, with poetic spacings and shifts. Her writing is exciting, the kind of writing that challenges the reader and the very mode of expression we have come to so diligently expect of our novels. It begs not just to be read but to be heard. The sex is stimulating but understated, intense and intoxicating: ‘Bodies knowing the other’s well from before but everything else running through now, making it rare […] and the desire that follows, no matter what we do, cannot be spent up and does not let go.’ ‘I like shifting his lank body up and into life.’

The language splits and reforms continually, with McBride reaffirming her title as queen of the compound. Words fuse tougher at every turn with pleasing results: ‘smoke-clod,’ ‘drink-ale,’ ‘thrillpleasuredread.’ Language, like the consciousness of our narrator, is never still; it moves with a restlessness throughout the novel that remains true to life. In McBride’s own words, from a 2016 talk: ’Linear language makes that process [of moving] incredibly slow because one thing has to happen after the other.’ For Bohemians, as with Girl, language had to be engaged with the aliveness of its subject: ‘it was about compressing it, making it all happen at once.’

On their first reencounter after Stephen takes Eily’s virginity, there is a scene of kissing, but this is kissing unlike kissing has ever been described before. McBride captures the movement of kissing beyond mouths, kissing that incites the blood rushing, the snatches of memory, anticipation, enjoyment, the process of literally and figuratively opening up to another person. McBride identifies the depth such fleeting contact can instigate in the wake of a moment. The act of a kiss is extended and given a space such gestures are rarely permitted. This is perhaps McBride’s greatest skill – her ability to unravel the fundamental acts of life, to articulate with immense clarity the immensity of a single moment, a touch, a glance. Despite her protagonist’s protestation that she and her lover kiss ‘till we are only mouths,’ it is exactly McBride’s ability to reveal everything beyond the purely physical encounter that makes these scenes so captivating and refreshingly original. The strangeness of two bodies colliding is made much of again and again, as is our proximity to it. In Eily’s head we are granted continual and unadulterated experience, a closeness that leaves one feeling almost bereft by the novel’s end.

Caught within the confines of her body, we experience everything Eily does from her perspective. We never look at Eily, she never becomes an object, and the interiority of her narration ensures a crucial differentiation from other narratives of this kind, especially in relation to scenes of physical intimacy. The sex not only manages to resist the clichéd terminology and typical motions that express generic physical actions, but also locates itself beyond the bodies of its characters. We do not share in observing Eily, but we share in her ‘strange delight of being seen.’ In the process of moving these characters, McBride confesses to having come to an understanding that how she wrote about their connection was ‘incredibly specific to them,’ that their movements were an innate part of ‘who they both were’ but also ‘what they came from.’ The currency of touch is omnipresent. Sex becomes a tool in the book, a language of corporality through which McBride is able to describe who her characters were, are and will become.

It is this fascination with the physical aspects of love, the bodily root of emotions, that makes the relationship of the two figures, whose own bodies have both been abused in the past, so compelling. Touch and physical interactions are accentuated as a means of articulation, a process through which people can come to understand and love one another. How we connect, how we break down the barriers we create around ourselves, how we truly touch those around us is continually at the fore. With sex, with love, with contact, comes an inevitable unveiling. Just as clothes are shed, so too are the masks of personality. When we are naked we can be intimate, but we are also vulnerable. When Stephen is finally able to cast off the safety net of secretiveness and reveal the troubles of his past, he opens himself up entirely.

At this new point of intimacy with Eily, his life comes spooling out of him. We are shown the painful traces of life that have formed the man before us. We are shown that in running from his past, Stephen shed his old self like a coat, too quickly. He reveals how he fell into acting by chance, a happy discovery where he relished a newfound freedom: ‘like living without consequence.’ Yet his success in avoiding reality was not enough to save him from his demons. Instead we witness the slow collapse as he describes the process of ‘watching the self I’d built up over four or five years just crack and fall off me like paint,’ until he reached a point where he was ‘ready to be undone.’ Trauma is not so easily erased. Yet in this confession (Stephen’s narrative as retold by Eily takes up a good 17 pages), the fragments that McBride presents do not merely present an unravelling, a destructive and pained destruction; they also present the pieces that are able to reassemble, the parts of a person that endure, the parts of life that may break down but also hold the potential to be built up again.

It is intriguing that while McBride speaks so openly about her own abuse in London as a young Irish girl in the wake of the Troubles – in a 2016 piece for the Financial Times she describes a particularly low point of having ‘Terrorist Terrorist you Irish whore’ carved with a knife into her wall – in Bohemians she allows the ‘gloriousness’ of her own affectionate memories of drama school in London to dominate. An ode to the city, the story is also an ode to a new kind of hope notably absent from the pages of Girl: a hope rooted in humanity. Bohemians is lighter, not merely in subject matter but in its outlook. There remains throughout a steady security, a trust that no matter the trials life does go on. ‘I wanted to write about life,’ says McBride in the aforementioned talk, ‘life opening out’. In such dark times, a story of such defiant salvation, in which love for all its tricks and turns manages to heal, is a powerful act.