Working Back from a Sorry End
So Many Ways to Begin
By Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £10.99
"The Whole Story Would take a lifetime to tell. But what he had would be a start, he thought, a way to begin." Jon McGregor, whose debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, was a surprise long-lister for the Man Booker, is interested in beginnings, and especially the beginnings of stories - as might be guessed from the title of his latest book.
It also implies an interest in the past - memory, history, the stories that tell us who we are and how we came to be here. McGregor is too smart to suppose that that means a single story, or even a confirmable one; he knows his postmodern theory, he knows sources are not to be trusted.
And yet there is something very old-fashioned about McGregor's careful, mature, considered, unflashy prose, a quietly authoritative style that somehow gives the lie to the story his novel appears to be telling: that not everything can be known.
We begin - or at least the first beginning begins - with Mary, a poor girl from rural Ireland who leaves to work in service at a big house in London. We don't know very much about her personal life except that one day she finds she is pregnant, and when the baby is born, she agrees to hand it over for adoption. Then she leaves London, returns to Ireland, marries and has a family. Nobody at home knows anything about the adopted child. Then we have our second beginning. David and Eleanor are a middle-aged couple with a grown-up daughter, Kate. We are told that David has been to somebody's funeral but we don't yet know whose, and that he is planning another trip, but we don't yet know where (except that Eleanor isn't happy about it). More "beginnings" follow as we flash back to the story of David and Eleanor's courtship when they were only teenagers. David was hoping to become a museum curator in Coventry; Eleanor was a schoolgirl working in a tea-shop in Aberdeen. As David notes often, it was only chance that brought them together.
But Eleanor comes from an abusive family; or, at least, she has a very heavy-handed mother, who stops her going to university even after she has won a place there. So she runs away to be with David in Coventry and they get married. But things don't work out as planned; soon Eleanor is struggling with depression as her university career fails to pan out and she deals with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother. Only when baby Kate comes along does she appear to rally, and then only briefly.
It was while he was first dating Eleanor that David discovered he was adopted, but it was a long time before he confided this to her, waiting until after they were married. Throughout the years since, he has made various attempts to trace his birth mother but with no success. This very personal search has also caused him problems in his marriage - Eleanor understandably has something of a problem with mothers in general - and he is almost tempted into an affair with a work colleague at the museum.
McGregor handles all this with an ease and maturity that suggests wisdom beyond his years, but just occasionally you long for a wild, crazy moment, a moment when you feel it really might all just go up in flames. There is a lack of excitement here, a sense that, while some of the characters may have something to lose (Eleanor her husband, adoptive mother Dorothy her son), they do not really feel that threat to their lives. Eleanor's depression is deadening, not threatening, and David is such a reasonable man that all the various "beginnings" in the world can't give this story the sense of confusion and emotional mess that it needs.
And it does need those things, because this is a hugely distressing tale that should leave scarcely a dry eye in the house. Somehow, though, its carefully controlled intimacy doesn't quite connect. Possibly McGregor has wanted to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia and sentimentalism that could have tarred his project. But a little more recklessness could have transformed this novel into a classic.
This review first appeared in The Scotsman
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