Thoughts: The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

A story about a young drama student studying abroad who meets an older actor and begins a relationship… I thought I knew what this was all about, but I was pleasantly surprised!

Spoilers follow, etc. Content warning under the cut because that is also sort of spoilers.

Content warning for the book (not the review) for sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, incest. Quite the gamut!

I wanted to read The Lesser Bohemians despite the plot not really being my usual fare because I really liked McBride’s debut, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, even if the subject matter and inevitable ensuing storyline this time seemed a bit hackneyed. But to her credit McBride avoids the well-worn path by giving serious, equal weight to both sides. I was expecting that the older actor would be initially charismatic, the shine would then come off him and the two would part ways bitterly, in a sad but formative experience. As one does.

Instead, though the actor, Stephen, does show his less charming side (an understatement) quite quickly, and the relationship becomes painful, we get to dig deeper into his past (and being older than Eilis, the heroine, he has a lot of it). We see why he is the way he is, and, more interestingly, what he used to be, and how far he’s come. He isn’t perfect, and his dodgier moments towards Eilis are still very much on the red flag just-get-away side, but it adds a very different angle to the character. Sometimes it feels like he, rather than Eilis, is the protagonist. His narrative arc certainly feels more traditionally protagonisty when you step back and look at it.

Not that Eilis is a blank slate or boring – I felt very keenly her position, newly in a big city, surrounded by people who all seem to know more than you and to have had more interesting lives. McBride’s style lends itself well to that kind of overthinking self-consciousness.

And speaking of style, though The Lesser Bohemians starts off in very much the same vein as A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, in that choppy, difficult, tangenty way that McBride is so good at, it settles down very quickly into a more “normal” kind of prose, though still rich in her use of language and adept at getting us right into the minds of the characters.

I’m not sure even at the end that I’d consider Stephen and Eilis’s relationship a particularly… healthy? one, and the more Stephen’s friends kept remarking on how they’d never seen him so happy till he met her, the more I found myself thinking “No, don’t take that burden on yourself,” and though it doesn’t really come up, the age gap was always quite there for me (Eilis is not that much older than Stephen’s daughter, and regardless of their ignoring it, at some point Eilis will probably have to meet her, and the more serious their relationship gets the more of a Thing that will become!). But given how much it exceeded my expectations, and how real the characters felt, and how much I found I had to chew on as I read and changed my mind about the reasonableness of one or the other of them, in the end I can say I did enjoy the experience.

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