One test of a decent stylist is whether their prose could be cut. Eimear McBride is an arresting writer, but her novels do nothing just for show. Among the best things, in fact, about A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) and The Lesser Bohemians (2016) – stories of sexual assault, and sexual pleasure, and love affairs lanced by reality – is how smoothly they absorb you, despite their unusual styles and the anguish they describe.
Girl is about an Irish teenager damaged by abuse and the plight of a brother she loves; Bohemians follows a similar girl to London, where she becomes entwined with an older actor with a differently brutal past. To “harrow” is to unearth by violence, with people as with fertile ground, and both Girl and Bohemians are harrowing books, in a present and active sense. McBride’s narrators go on spilling their words, unfolding themselves to themselves and trapping us in earshot, too.
Take this passage, from Bohemians:
Through quiet Liverpool Street he carries my bag. Quiet concourse. Stansted Express. Quietest platform. Loneliest journey I know. I’ll miss you, I say Will you write? If you want. Or you want. Then I’ll want, if you will. All I want though is to tell you how much I No, go, or you’ll miss your train.
Often, it’s thanks to its tightness that her dialogue rings true, and the above is McBride at her sparse and heartfelt best. It isn’t how people speak in other novels, but that was why James Joyce and Samuel Beckett pushed the form: to figure out how to portray the way that words can fail us, and beautifully.
For nearly a decade, McBride was unable to publish Girl; were it not for the small press Galley Beggar, one of our leading contemporary novelists would still be writing in the dark. But it eventually appeared, and won the Goldsmiths Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. When Bohemians followed, three years later, it didn’t get its due – it’s a better book – but it eased its way into longlists and shortlists and its share of praise.
And now, here’s the 43-year-old’s third novel, this winter’s talk of the town. The plot of Strange Hotel isn’t much more complex, in terms of the skeleton of events, than its predecessors were. A woman travels the world, stays in hotels, has casual encounters with men in some and not others, and narrates it all to us. Eventually, a memory of a past relationship begins to dominate, as her control over her assignations appears to slip away.
Reading Strange Hotel, however, you might at first do a double-take. It isn’t as stylistically abstruse as the pair of novels that came before. Take a passage such as this:
Next door zips his case up and she is recalled. To head hanging, hand wringing, the whole medley of awful. It’s too soon to reframe last night as a blank but she’ll try to just as soon as she can. Because that is the plan.
This isn’t so far from what teachers call “good English”. In other words: thoughts arranged by grammar, put in their proper place by conjunctions and verbs and the like. Even the punctuation is like anyone else’s: full stops before capital letters, no spaces to hollow the paragraphs out. It’s how language works in novels, but not in people’s speech, or in the mess of their heads.
This lends to the novel a facility that seems in part a relief, but in part a frustration too. Neither Girls nor Bohemians is a painless read, nor were they supposed to be. At 149 pages, Strange Hotel is brisk; Girl only had 50 more, but its density of style made it seem double that: “Focus. Catch it. Focus down. Rip. I remember someone. Where they go. Where I went. Here. Here.” For her third book, McBride has relented, and her sentences have grown. Still, although they’re longer, they’re no less terse and dense; the writing remains meticulous, with a familiar weird eye. A smoker at night is seen in “ribboning profile”; the woman imagines a punch “shooting its ferns up into her arm”; passengers on the Tube are “faces facing their reflection-drained looks”.
After Girl was published, McBride talked of what Joyce meant to her: “I was on a train on the way to a boring temp job when I was about 25; I got on at Tottenham, north London, and opened the first page of Ulysses. When I got off at Liverpool Street in central London, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say the entire course of my life had changed.”
She loved the exhilaration of Joyce’s writing, and added her belief that “difficulty is subjective: the demands a writer makes on a reader can be perceived as a compliment.” Then, after Bohemians was published, McBride took a university post and became immersed in the work of Beckett. “He chose a particularly brutal form of self-restraint,” she wrote. “I find myself admiring the result but wondering about the cost.”
Strange Hotel has a Beckettian conceit – the woman keeps waiting for men to go or come – but it owes as much to his style. It can seem as though McBride were writing in order to understand how Beckett wrote – to weigh up the “cost” of his particular “form of self-restraint”. One effect of that restraint is never being happy with the words you choose, and McBride is hooked, as Beckett was, on the comic dangers of being precise. Her narrator, to quote a character from his play Catastrophe, has a “craze for explicitation”; while in Auckland, for instance, she dwells on why walking feels different there:
…it seems the ground has somehow misplaced her confidence in it. Either that or – and this would be considerably more abstract – the soles of her feet have begun doubting themselves. Is it an actual possibility that such a precisely located doubt might exist? She is inclined to think it is not. Realistically, she must presume, her feet may have a problem afoot.
The bad pun on “afoot”, the wryly fastidious questions, the slowness of the inquiry: listen to Beckett, there like a ghost.
Strange Hotel is richly written, and wholly absorbing, and centres on sexual danger; still, it isn’t quite the McBride novel you might expect. Nor is it obvious where her style will go from here, with its stringencies partly relaxed. But experiments aren’t links in a chain, and anyway, the departure is apt for the setting. Hotels aren’t homes exactly: they free us from domestic roles, make us strangers to ourselves for a night. That’s the thrill of going to one: you play around, and then you come back.
Strange Hotel will be published on February 6 by Faber at £12.99. To pre-order your copy for £10.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop