I had no intention of getting on with this book. If it hadn’t been longlisted for the Baileys Prize then I would almost definitely carried on thinking ‘not for me’, just as I did with McBride’s feted debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (which I still have not read). Written in a poetic, stream of consciousness style, this is a novel that takes a while to get into. Once I was immersed in it the style seemed natural to read. This book could not have worked without the almost dreamlike state its prose creates, and by the end I’d sort of fallen in love with it.
In its basic form, this is a love story set in the mid 90s. Eily, an eighteen year old drama student, moves from Ireland to London. She meets an older actor, Stephen, almost twenty years her senior and semi-famous. The novel is about their relationship over the course of the academic year. It is a coming of age story for Eily, but for Stephen too the relationship marks a turning point. Gradually we discover that both of them have troubled pasts.
Reading this was a little like watching a relationship through a Vaseline-smeared window. The way McBride writes her prose makes the words seem less concrete. Occasionally I missed who was speaking but enough was clear. Since Eily and Stephen spend large chunks of the book off their faces on booze or drugs, it felt more immersive to not have a crystal clear vision of everything they were doing and saying. About a third of the way through, I wondered if there was enough of a story to sustain my interest, but this is where McBride then delves back into their histories. Stephen, for me, became a believable character here, telling Eily on the eve of his birthday about his childhood and early adulthood. Before that, I did think him a little clichéd – the older man, actor who could have made it bigger had he not battled drug addiction, constantly shagging everything that moved.
While Stephen became fully rounded through his revelations, I never really understood what made Eily tick. Even though this written in first person, in her thoughts, there was a childlike quality to her that never went away. She spends most of the novel trying to grab Stephen’s attention. He is the older man with the more interesting life. Maybe if McBride had brought us more from her time in Ireland, or spent more time with her one friend that she seemed to have, I would have cared more for her. I think it was her lack of interests outside of the relationship that made me find her a little two dimensional. Even the acting was shared by both of them.
The revelation for me is that I really did enjoy this book and I’d not be upset to see it on the Baileys shortlist. I think it would be a good addition just for the bold way McBride writes (plus I hate writing sex scenes and she had to write loads in this! None of which I found excruciating to read).