London. The 90’s. A young Irish girl moves from her homeland to begin drama school. Yet in The Lesser Bohemians, author Eimear McBride (A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing) does not give us a glimpse inside the hallowed halls of educational institutions, of scripts and dusty libraries or the tension that is ever present between learner and lecturer. Instead, the drama that unfolds is offstage – in the form of a tumultuous relationship with an older man.
The narrator, desperate to shed her virginity and prove herself as worldly, meets an actor almost twice her age late one night in a dark Camden bar. They return to his squalid studio, and for the first time, she has sex. But it’s not the “first time” perfection that is most often depicted in literature. Instead, it’s awkward and raw. We read her innermost thoughts, and are drawn deeper and more intimately into the moment, an articulation of the bona fide first time – “elbows and laugh stumble bed again. His body – it seems – liking everything while mine still doesn’t know what’s going on but tries so hard to please.” This encounter is the first of many sexual and emotional explorations of the two, who find that sex opens wounds and brings their dark pasts into harsh and blinding light.
It might just be an Irish thing (see James Joyce’s Ulysses) but The Lesser Bohemians is stark and uncompromising in its stream-of-consciousness. Others may find this jarring, but the voice of a young girl in a new city sank into me. The frightening but liberating feeling of leaving a small town and becoming anonymous in a big city is familiar.
It was a voice that made me hibernate – only surfacing for coffee or wine or another substance to keep me afloat in the destructive prose that threatened to drown me. I began in the morning and was feverishly awake late that night turning page after page until I finally closed the book. I was done. But then I was still thinking in her voice – in run-on sentences and fragments. In single lines. Words.
In a deliberate choice, each character is unnamed for the larger part of the novel. It gave me the chance to solidify these two characters in my mind and allowed me to slip into the bodies that McBride’s words create. In particular our protagonist’s experiences of being alone in a new city, and exploring her sexual nature for the first time.
The Lesser Bohemians’ accounts of sex throughout the novel perfectly capture the multifaceted nature of it. Sex can (all at once) be an expression of love, a tool for manipulation, a means to an end, an attempt to fix something that is broken, a communication tool, a cure for boredom, a way to learn about the self, an act of creation, a punishment, a reward, a habit, an addiction, a chore, a secret, an answer, a question, and maybe even an act of hope.
I always thought that if I was to write a novel, I could never write a love story. Love stories are all already written, they are boring, overdone. But in The Lesser Bohemians McBride gives us a love story that is purely original and fresh.
If nothing else, The Lesser Bohemians will make you think “fuck.”