California Literary Review

So Many Ways To Begin by Jon McGregor


July 16th, 2007 at 11:45 am

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So Many Ways To Begin
by Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury USA, 352 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

An Accomplished Tale of Two Ordinary Lives

Jon McGregor’s highly acclaimed first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things was published in 2002 when its author was a 26-year-old part-time dishwasher. Written in a fluid style which eschewed inverted commas and reached for poetry in prose, it was an ambitious and confident debut. However, it suffered from McGregor’s tiresome insistence on constantly finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

With So Many Ways To Begin he has produced a more coherent, subtle and affecting piece of work. It is not a complete departure from the themes of his first. He is still fascinated by the mundane details of daily existence, ‘the small things’, the chance meetings and ‘fractional moments’ that change and move a life. But the prose is far less ornate and it is a relief to be without that cloying feeling of being in the presence of someone who is always reaching for the profound.

This is a novel which works as a play of moods in the life of David and Eleanor Carter. At its centre are three narratives: the David and Eleanor’s marriage; Eleanor’s cruel upbringing and bitter refusal to forgive; and the assault on David’s identity when he learns quite by chance that his natural mother gave him up for adoption. David is never truly able to forgive his adoptive mother Dorothy for having kept this information from him, refusing to speak to her for weeks after the truth is revealed. His profession makes it even harder for him to deal with the problem of his unknown beginnings. As a museum curator he is involved in the meticulous cataloguing of the past. He earns his money by giving order to chaos, ‘piecing together stories around the objects he (finds).’ He has spent ‘most of his life looking for …the physical traces of history’. He is troubled by being unable to do the same with his own. He cannot locate ‘some small piece of where (he) began.’

David’s interest in ‘the cracked and rusting remains of other lives’ begins as a boy. After a visit to the great museums of London he starts searching through the postwar bomb sites of Coventry. He catalogues his finds, keeps them in shoeboxes under his bed and dreams of one day opening his own museum. When he leaves school he is taken on as a Junior Curatorial Assistant at Coventry Museum.

When David meets Eleanor she is a spirited girl of eighteen, committed to becoming a geologist. She will pass her exams. Leave home. Go off to university. David and Eleanor get married and have a daughter but Eleanor’s career fails to get off the ground; she succumbs to regular bouts of depression and struggles with the memory of her oppressive and abusive mother. David’s career, once so promising, founders on the rock of 1980s economic ‘efficiencies’. He comes to accept he will never realise his ambition of opening his own museum. At the back of everything, all the time, is the unwanted knowledge of familial deception, undermining David’s psychological security. After having made one failed attempt at finding his birth mother it is not until he is in his late fifties, that he embarks on another journey. A promising lead on a website will, he hopes, take him toward the peace that he has long lived without.

David and Eleanor’s story is an unremarkable one. But their ordinary disappointments and frustrations are precisely what make the novel memorable. McGregor generates great poignancy by naming each chapter after various fragments of the characters’ lives, a letter, a photograph, an old wooden boat. Like Roddy Doyle, McGregor takes uncelebrated lives and invests them with dignity and depth. Whilst he has none of Doyle’s lightness of touch or humour, there is a rare emotional wisdom here. In his first novel McGregor tried to do too much. The kaleidoscopic snapshot of moments in the lives of several unnamed characters threatened to become a blur. There was no time to linger on anyone. But the portrait of a troubled yet tender and affectionate marriage which is at the heart of this novel is astoundingly convincing and often extremely moving. McGregor traces the relationship from the first tentative intimacies to the youthful rush of excitement and hope at moving into a first house together; through the pain of reality failing to meet expectations and on into the well-worn certainties of age. It lingers long in the mind.

So Many Ways To Begin taps into the contemporary vogue for genealogy created by the online boom in family history websites. But this is not a novel which aims to be fashionable. As in his debut, McGregor deals with the uncertainty of knowledge, the working of memory and the place of secrets within families and marriages. His treatment of the faultlines which underpin relationships is acute and sensitive and his placing of ordinary characters within a broader context of social history brings Graham Swift to mind. This is a most assured, compelling performance by a writer in complete control of his material.

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