What a great name for a very clever novel. While the jury is still out about the merits of the book group I have joined, we will see what happens in December’s meeting, it did mean Mum and I read Jon McGregor’s novel and how refreshing it was.
It has the feel of a collection of short stories in some ways, although all part of the one story and not disjointed. The key narrator is omniscient (one of my usual dislikes for various reasons) but not when done well and this is done well. And redeemed because some of the chapters have a first-person narrator who holds all of the elements tightly together and means you can connect to someone; which for me is essential in any story.
In a nutshell the story is set in a particular street in a city, in Northern England, and everything relates to a single event that happened on the last day of summer. The story is based on very carefully crafted observations of the people in the street, named as the man at number 21, the girl at number 19 or whatever. But even without names we get a really vivid picture of the characters and their lives. We see the man dying on cancer who won’t tell his wife. We see the twins playing in the street, the students… and you really become immersed in a single day and its strange events that lead to this something bad that happened only you don’t know what it is yet. It’s a symphony of beautiful prose and clever devices. I love the man painting his house all day, on the day that something happened and he doesn’t quite finish the last part. What a wonderful way of measuring time as the novel keeps returning to the events of that day and we know from the outset that this thing stopped him finishing that last bit, so its progression is the ticking clock, brilliant. The only character whose life we see after the event is the first-person narrator who has a secret and teases the reader along with what did happen that day.
This is what it says on Amazon:
‘This novel owes as much to poetry as it does to prose. Its opening, an invocation of the life of the city, is strongly reminiscent of Auden’s Night Mail in its hypnotic portrait of industrialised society…An assured debut’ Erica Wagner, The Times.
On a street in a town in the North of England, ordinary people are going through the motions of their everyday existence – street cricket, barbecues, painting windows…A young man is in love with a neighbour who does not even know his name. An old couple make their way up to the nearby bus stop. But then a terrible event shatters the quiet of the early summer evening. That this remarkable and horrific event is only poignant to those who saw it, not even meriting a mention on the local news, means that those who witness it will be altered for ever. Jon McGregor’s first novel brilliantly evokes the histories and lives of the people in the street to build up an unforgettable human panorama. Breathtakingly original, humane and moving, IF NOBODY SPEAKS OF REMARKABLE THINGS is an astonishing debut. ‘The work of a burning new talent …Jon MacGregor writes like a lyrical angel’ Daily Mail
I loved the way this is structured, for something experimental, and actually even in terms of the narrative it dares to break the rules, in its formatting, its lack of speech marks… and yet it works. I work with writers sometimes trying to be experimental and break the rules and I always say only break them if you one — really understand them, and two — it enhances the way the story is told, forcing the reader to change the way they read the words on the page. This is a good example that does just that.
Of course this is a literary novel and so it more about the characters than the plot that drives it and is a good example to illustrate the difference between the commercial and the literary. The title represents that small things in life and the novel looks at the every day and the mundane and yet significant to those people in the story.
It’s in the small observations we find ourselves.
Did someone say that, am I quoting someone or did I come up with that? I like it. It is the small things and if you get them right you paint a picture of life. I love the small details in my writing. And in fact, while my novels are more plot-driven, I do find myself looking for those tiny details to bring a character to life.
I see this more in my short stories. It brings to mind the voyeur in The Theory of Circles story published in Unthank Books Unthology 3, one I was very proud of and it was nominated for the Pushcart. These are also observations of the comings and goings on the Crescent and is very much about the characters. See how you do this in your own writing.
Mum would not normally read this kind of book and she loved it. Unlike some novels that make it onto the Man Booker list, it is not word-heavy and the simplicity and yet beauty of the language made it feel as if every word counts. Mum’s only criticism which I kind of agree with in part, is by the end the device of using the observations on that single day was a little like watching something in slow motion. You were drawn into it and you wanted to know what happened, but Mum said she was thinking just tell us now. So perhaps it could have got to that sooner. I see what she means and it’s a valid point, but I felt that less so. I was drawn into the wanting to know and it carried me to the end, although the ending is oddly understated and yet brilliant and Mum did love that.
I urge any writer to look at this book for its differences and to see how to craft nameless characters in a wonderfully vivid way. Any book that makes me stop and say I wish I wrote that line is my kind of book. And there are many bent over pages in this book where I thought, oh what a line! Write it, save it, store it, aspire to write like that.
I will leave you to find out those for yourself.
I will be reading this book again.
I give this 5 stars.
Book clubs make you read other things and so I will be reviewing some of the books here or if I don’t persist with this particular book club (since we didn’t even discuss the book!) I will be doing my own book club with the writing group, suggesting titles and will put them here as well for anyone who wants to read along at the same time.
Have a wonderful Tuesday everyone! The chill means I am beginning to think of Christmas. I love it, but never until December, then I allow myself to succumb to it. Next week…