The most dramatic publishing Cinderella story in recent memory belongs to the Irish novelist Eimear McBride. In 2013, after almost a decade of trying to find a home for her first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which she wrote in six months when she was 27, a man her husband met in a bookstore offered to take a look at it for a new press he was starting. Both completely modern (as in fresh) and modernist (as in harking back to turn-of-the-century experimentation), the book was astounding, and the press, Galley Beggar, which is based in Norwich, where McBride lives, took it on immediately.
Soon after, it became a sensation. The same experimental, "difficult" voice—and dark subject matter—that had made so many mainstream publishers reject the novel was heralded with praise like "daring" and "remarkable"; it earned McBride comparisons to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who share McBride's penchant for grammatical manipulation and fraught, harrowing themes. (In the resoundingly bleak story, an unnamed teenage narrator seems to speak from a place of pre-consciousness as she deals with sexual abuse, poverty, puberty, and a brother's brain tumor.) The small frenzy culminated in McBride winning the prestigious Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction in 2014.
But in the years between writing Girl and the raging success it became, McBride was toiling, slowly, on another novel, one that she was "in love with" while she was doing press for her debut. Out this month, The Lesser Bohemians took her nine years to write. "I think I'm still slightly in a state of shock that I've finished it," she told me over the phone. "Girl became successful very quickly, and it kind of gave me a fear, to be honest—I imagined people saying, 'Oh, she'll never write another book as good as this.'"
The pressure is not just in her head. In New York magazine's fall 2016 book preview, the critic Christian Lorentzen said McBride's first novel "showed that Irish modernism still had plenty of life in it, so her sophomore effort...will show where she can go with that potentially burdensome legacy"; reviews in the New York Times and the Guardian noted that Girl will probably become "a classic" and change lives "in years to come." Though I realize this is totally illogical, I was surprised to hear McBride had a new book coming out so soon after A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing: It had seemed like something so singular—another book would appear in eight years, or ten.
I was even more surprised when I opened up The Lesser Bohemians and saw a grammar and voice similar to those in Girl—I had imagined the voice of Girl to be the narrator's internal monologue, not something that belonged to the writer. But in both books, language alternately delights and devastates, twisting without turning into a gimmick; instead, the beauty of grammatical function is on display. In Girl, the way she omits, adds, and alters words is particularly effective at describing the chaos of a party: "It's a mad. I had never been. I have only seen and thought films were like that. Music hurting on the innards. Door. Lungs. People pouring noise out front back of this old house.... I am fine sit and drink and watch. All this harlotting go full on." It is even more potent when she describes the first time she is raped by her uncle: "Here we are. Here we are. We eventually are here. Go let myself go down in this. He has a mouth of me.... He is goding goding goding. In his breath.... Dancing with the pain of it and would do later for many bleeding days.... I cannot cannot take this.... And breathing deafing out my ears." You cannot imagine reading a whole book like that, but the whole book is like that, and you read it.
The Lesser Bohemians starts with a similar voice, but it's a softer, more open work—grammar included. Where the new experiences, sights, and sounds of Girl are overwhelming at best, McBride's second novel is often about excitement and possibility. It begins when an 18-year-old Irish girl moves to London—"Look. As sky shifts all to brick"—for drama school, and soon after she meets an attractive actor in his late 30s in a pub. Her dark past is suggested, something like what happens in Girl but not as encompassing. She loses her virginity to him, but instead of a lonely horror, the encounter is mostly sweet, and tender. The book becomes a love story, and a portrait of an unlikely relationship in which the actor's own dark past plays a prominent role. I found myself almost embarrassed to be devouring it, hoping for the happy ending I was not expecting of McBride or either of these characters.
Is it a feminist thing to write a miserable [book] about how awful it is to be a teenage girl?
As the love story develops, the language relaxes; McBride told me that once she realized the book was about a relationship, she knew the tone would have to be different in order to "facilitate more direct forms of communication"—how each person processes, or misunderstands, what the other says, how the way they speak to each other shifts over time. Eventually, we learn the characters' names, but not until pretty late in the book. "I'm kind of keen for the reader to not know their names before they read," McBride said. "Both names are revealed when the person who says them says the hardest thing for them to say."
Although McBride says that, in some ways, the books are "two sides of the same coin," The Lesser Bohemians is a much more personal read than her first book. Despite the trauma of these characters' pasts, the story feels uncomfortably familiar: McBride charts its course from a shy beginning; to "cringey stuff" like jealousy and falling in love; to fights, doubts, and late-night confessions. "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."
There are also a lot of sex scenes, which she acknowledges are a "dangerous" territory for a writer. "There's not a lot of writing about sex that can be awkward but also joyous, pleasurable but unnerving. It's hard to write a lot of physical descriptions. But it was important to me to keep the connection between the internal life and the physical—I was interested in how those very particular people relate to each other, how they feel about each other, and how those two people have sex. In a way, it's the way they communicate with each other, because they're so unable to be emotional initially, and they both come to sex from such completely different perspectives."
Last year, I interviewed the writer Caitlin Moran, who was a judge on the panel that selected A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing for the 2014 Baileys Prize. Although her work is very different from McBride's—Moran is a bestselling humor writer who mostly does essays and memoir—they both write about being a teenage girl in difficult circumstances. Moran's first novel, published in 2014, is called How to Build a Girl; both writers are concerned with how their protagonists come to be.
But the difference in titles there—for McBride, a girl is passively "formed," while in Moran's world, she is built, or constructed with some intention—points to the most obvious distinction between their work, at least at the time: Moran's stories are uplifting, while Girl paints a completely dismal portrait of adolescence.
According to Moran, the dark themes were cause for disagreement among the Baileys judges. Was it really appropriate to designate a novel that details certain depths of humanity as they are applied to a lower-class teenage girl the best book written by a woman in 2013? After all, the book that wins the Baileys prize also ends up being read in schools.
"This is the big argument we had on the judging panel, because it was between [Girl] and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I also love," Moran told me. "A lot of women were saying, 'Do we want teenage girls to be reading a story that is so relentlessly negative about being a girl? Is it a feminist thing to write a miserable [book] about how awful it is to be a teenage girl?'"
The group in favor of relentless negativity, more realistic than happy endings, won. "There are girls out there who do feel like this," Moran said. "This is what their lives are like. This is not going to be news to them. They're going to be reading about rape and abortion and fear and self-loathing and abusive sex and going, 'Oh yeah, that's happened to me.' So many girls have that story, and that is why we need to have all the voices around the table. You can't just have positive stuff. We never have these concerns for boys, and we shouldn't have them for girls. You would never say this book would be 'bad for men.'"
This opinion is right, but The Lesser Bohemians nevertheless provides something of a corrective, sort of; it's not completely positive, or even mostly positive, but it does leave you feeling hopeful—which is arguably a more difficult emotion to navigate. "I realized early on that it was a book about survival in a way that Girl is not a book about survival," McBride said. "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."