There’s a moment near the end of Strange Hotel (2020) in which the novel’s subject comments “[f]unny, how unbearable I’m finding all of this, considering I’m only imagining it”. Pages before this point, I had long lost any humorous coping mechanisms for the unbearableness of Eimear McBride’s latest novel.

McBride’s debut A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) was an emotionally raw, fractured tale of the eponymous narrator’s Irish childhood. It met critical acclaim, was hailed an “instant classic”, and won a multitude of prizes. Her second book, The Lesser Bohemians (2016), described the turbulence of first-time love and living away from home with an emotional intensity no other contemporary novel has even been able to approach. It received similar praise if no literary awards, and was said to cement “McBride’s status as one of our major novelists”.

And so, why does Strange Hotel fail where McBride’s other novels succeed?

A case could be made for its narrative style. Unlike her previous two novels, Strange Hotel does not begin with a first-person, interior narration. In both A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and the first half of Lesser Bohemians, reading the text is akin to sitting behind the narrator’s eyes or reading a minutely detailed transcription of their every thought – however apparently random – and movement.

Like A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians, McBride’s subject here is unnamed, and the novel’s sole, all-consuming focus is her thoughts and feelings. While the narration is supposedly third-person – the novel opens with a description of how “[s]he has no interest whatsoever in France” – McBride revels in her signature interior intensity. Sentences are disrupted, unmoored, and seem to require intimacy or conspiracy between the reader and subject in order to understand what is going on. This is more than free-indirect speech; McBride appears to be relaying her narrator’s experiences through third-person narration in an attempt to construct a veneer of distance or objectivity not felt in her previous two novels. And indeed, as the novel reaches its emotional height in its latter stages, McBride returns to first-person narration.

This narrative style is disorientating across McBride’s works: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing begins with the Jocyean narration of a two-year-old, while in Lesser Bohemians, the novel’s Camden backdrop is rendered dream-like and unrecognisable through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old living alone in the city for the first time. In these works, this defamiliarization is exciting and compelling; the most prosaic moments are made monumental. Both plot and landscape are discernible through the strange narration, and successfully moor the texts.

In Strange Hotel, the only concession to a sense of place are very-un-Thunberg-esque lists of cities the narrator has flown into, and the occasional description of the view from her hotel window. The only concession to plot is occasional crosses next to them. We know where the narrator was, and whether she had sex.

McBride is not shy of sex and intimacy; she writes it beautifully in The Lesser Bohemians, a novel which manages to be both a paean to the freedom of one-night-stands, and the more heartfelt, nuanced, and problematic sex within relationships. And yet, if The Lesser Bohemians is a celebration of the – sometimes troubling – emotional intensity and vulnerability which coexists with sex, Strange Hotel is its polar opposite: McBride’s narrator is opposed to even looking at her sexual partners in the light, let alone talking to them.

There is nothing wrong with exploring a fractured relationship with sex, and a depiction of a more mature woman with what is undoubtably a very high sex-drive is radical and interesting on some level. But, McBride spends much of the latter part of the novel trying to describe, in partial flashbacks, the narrator’s past that has led to this moment. The text fails: we either do not learn enough to truly engage with the subject, the prose is too unmoored to make sense of what we do learn, or – by the time McBride reaches something akin to a narrative plot preceding these plotless, quasi-ahistorical sexual conquests – her readers are too bored and alienated for it to hit home.

It feels wrong to criticise McBride’s radical narrative-technique for leaving her readers out in the cold; this technique was so successful in her previous texts. But here, it is less the fault of her experimental style, than the hyper-intellectual, pretentious, icy subject she is attempting to encapsulate.

When looking out of the window at Auckland, McBride’s subject describes herself as a “wrong-sexed St Sebastian skewered beside a dormant volcano”; her internal dialogue resembles a perennial pre-teen favourite The 1975 song when she wrestles: “Go on, say it! Nihilist! Yeah…”; and she is incessantly self-aggrandising and pathologizing as she analyses every aspect of her behaviour: “A PhD in human interactivity isn’t required to identify the nature of what passed”.

The flaw in McBride’s novel is less an authorial failing of narrative or style than her decision to describe such an unremittingly annoying character. It’s hard to enjoy a book when all your thoughts and notes just read “Oh please shut up”.