The most dramatic publishing Cinderella story in recent memory belongs to the Irish novelist Eimear McBride. She wrote her first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, in six months when she was 27, but it took her almost half a decade to find a publisher. In 2013, a man her husband met at a bookstore offered to consider the manuscript for a press he was starting. The press, Galley Beggar, based in Norwich, accepted the book. It became a sensation.
The same experimental, "difficult" voice that made mainstream publishers reject it was heralded with praise like "daring" and "remarkable"; it earned McBride comparisons to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who share her penchant for grammatical manipulation and harrowing themes. (In the bleak story, a teenage narrator seems to speak from a preconscious state as she deals with sexual abuse, poverty, puberty, and a brother's brain tumor.) In 2014, McBride won the prestigious Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.
"People do live with terrible things. They don't ever escape them, but it's possible to find ways to live with them."
But in the years between writing Girl and the raging success it became, McBride was toiling on a book that she was "in love with." "I think I'm still slightly shocked that I've finished it," she told me of her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, which took nine years to write and comes out this month. "Girl became successful very quickly, and it kind of gave me a fear—I imagined people saying, 'Oh, she'll never write another book as good as this.'" She reads the reviews.
The Lesser Bohemians is a softer, more open work. A love story about an actor with a dark past and an 18-year-old Irish drama student (who also has a dark past), the novel examines a relationship that feels familiar: McBride charts its course from a shy beginning to "cringey stuff" like jealousy and falling in love, to fights, late-night confessions, and (lots of) sex.
It's a more personal read than her first book, which explains McBride's nerves. "The extremity of Girl placed a safe distance between the reader and the characters," she said. "The Lesser Bohemians is more likely to make people feel more vulnerable."
Part of that sensitivity is due to the sex scenes, which she acknowledges can be "dangerous" territory for a writer. But it's also because The Lesser Bohemians leaves you hopeful. "I realized early on that it was a book about survival in a way that Girl is not. People do live with terrible things. They don't ever escape them, but it's possible to find ways to live with them. It seemed truer to make this messier."