Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 3: McBride

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

The definitive characteristic of The Lesser Bohemians is its style. You cannot extricate anything about this book from the way in which it is told; as in the most elegant biological structures, form equals function. The story is basic: Eily, an eighteen-year-old drama student, fetches up in London from Ireland (which, in the 1990s, doesn’t seem to have been a fun place to grow up). Over the course of her first year in drama school, she will meet and fall in love with a man twenty years her senior. Gradually, she will come to learn his past—which is, to say the least, disturbing—and he will come to learn hers, which is likewise. The development of their relationship is the central interest of the book: McBride is not even as interested in whether they will stay together or not as she is in charting the ways that this relationship enables Eily’s meteoric journey towards emotional maturity.

This is especially pleasing because it means that a book which spends a good portion of its middle section detailing the personal struggle of a male character—Eily’s lover Stephen—ultimately refuses to grant that struggle primacy. We are interested in Stephen’s redemption, of course, but we’re mainly interested in it for the effect it has on Eily. It’s a nice inversion of tropes that usually have women suffering in order to develop a male character; McBride isn’t so crass a writer as to simply gender-flip the trope, but the shape we get is of a man’s personal hell being definitive for a woman’s emotional development, and not just because it traumatises her.

To get to the middle section, though, you have to get through the first ninety pages, and to get through those, you have to warm to the style. The phrase “stream of consciousness” generally makes me want to kick something (all articulation is artificial to an extent! You can’t write a stream of consciousness by definition! And usually what people mean by this phrase is just “unpunctuated”!), but McBride comes close: her narrative lens is a tight, first-person one, and Eily’s voice comes to us in fits and starts, sentence fragments, ungrammatical, present tense. It’s a much truer way of portraying the experience of thought and perception, for my money, than (to take one example) the unbroken monologue that Joyce gives Molly Bloom in Ulysses. It lays the book open to charges of preciousness, I suppose, but McBride manages here to be less overtly poetic than in her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and so the voice doesn’t feel contrived. (It is also particularly well suited to a story about first love: the heart-pounding, the panic of jealousy, the grimness of the morning after a fight, all are rendered completely naturally in that slightly jerky present tense.) The test of a gimmick is whether it works, and this does. Once you realise that you’re not being narrated to, but instead are watching someone think, you know how to read it. (And we are very used to being narrated to, I admit. Having to do hard work as a contemporary reader, even as a reader of literary fiction, is fairly unusual.)

It does make me wonder where McBride will go next. To have written two novels in this style leaves her with a choice: write a third just like it, and become calcified in the public imagination as a one-trick pony in the style department, or write a third that differs from it wildly, and run the risk of disappointing the people who adore her work. Given the number of rejections her debut received, and how she persevered with it, though, I think she’s probably up to the challenge.

The remaining question is: would I shortlist this? The answer is that it depends heavily on how the rest of the longlist reading goes. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, I think its stylistic choices work extremely well given the material, and I was hugely impressed by the way that McBride handles questions of love and trust: in the hands of a lesser writer this story could be 50-Shades-adjacent, but with McBride it isn’t; it is always about two people navigating the past inside the present, with varying degrees of success. But at the same time, for me, it lacks the visceral punch of Do Not Say We Have Nothing and The Power, and the gobsmacking ambition of The Sport of Kings, and the economical honesty of First Love (all on my tentative personal shortlist so far). The Lesser Bohemians might well make the grade if nothing else is better—which sounds like damning with faint praise, but believe me, whether it makes the personal (or the shadow panel’s) shortlist or not, it’s worth your time.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. The Lesser Bohemians is published by Faber & Faber, and is available in hardback.

14 thoughts on “Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 3: McBride

  1. Like you, I’m very curious to see what McBride does next. She manages this particular style better than most writers, but it might not be sustainable over a whole career–nor would it work for every kind of story she might want to tell. I could see her doing well with short stories, where she’s able to experiment with lots of different styles and formats.

    1. I think she’s published a reasonable amount of short fiction already, so yes—that might work really well. It did strike me, though, as it did you, that this particular style might not suit every story she wants to tell. It’s great for passionate, unworldly young women (and men, I guess, see Joyce again), but what if she wants to write about something else?

  2. I own both her books but have yet to read them. Which would you recommend first – both sound a little intimidating?

    1. I think The Lesser Bohemians is a much more hopeful book – A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is incredible and atmospheric, but god it can get dark.

  3. I’ve been completely put off McBride by the style. I once glanced at the first page of A Girl and thought, “Hmmm…nah.” You’re right that we’re generally not used to having to put hard work into our reading, and it makes me feel lazy and stupid that I would automatically rule out books like these. But I just think, there’s so many incredible books out there that aren’t so opaque and that I will enjoy, whereas this would be like being back in high school and forced to read something that I may therefore hate. I think you’re more open to experimental styles because you’re reading as a writer.

    1. Do you know, I’d never even considered that. I don’t think it’s lazy and stupid to rule out books, either! I do think that McBride has a lot to offer readers, and I think she’s more accessible in many ways than writers who appear equally stylistically innovative, but as you say—there are SO MANY books, and contrary to what listicles would have us believe, most of them aren’t absolutely essential.

  4. I got this one from the library back in January, read 30 pages and then had to return it because I ran out of time. I have it again finally with much more time to read it and am looking forward to it. have you read her first book? I loved A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

    1. I tried it a couple of months ago, put it down at about 60 pages, then picked it up again and had a much better time with it. I really liked Girl—but I found it much harder going, emotionally speaking.

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