Regular readers may remember that I kicked off my Blasts from the Past series with Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin. I love his work – so much so that it’s hard not to gush when writing about it, particularly as this new novel seems to me to be even better than the ones that came before. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life.
Rebecca Shaw, sometimes known as Becky or Bex, goes missing over the New Year holiday when her parents are renting a holiday cottage. The villagers assemble in the freezing cold, anxious to find her, all too well aware of her danger. Despite searching in every possible place, she’s not found. The media descend, the police continue their investigations and Rebecca’s parents hunker down in their rented barn conversion. Speculation is rife. The first year ends with respectfully muted New Year celebrations. The villagers get on with their lives, nature continues its annual cycle but no one forgets what has happened. The second year sees the media still present, the villagers still concerned, still dreaming about the lost thirteen-year-old but hoping the limelight will shift elsewhere. After the dramatic events of its opening chapters, little happens over the years McGregor’s novel chronicles but the effects of the girl’s disappearance continue to be felt, steadily diminishing yet ever-present.
This is such an accomplished novel. The rhythms of the natural world and village life hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives: foxes mate; herons fish; snowdrops appear; badgers cub deep inside their setts; the parish council meets and minutes are taken; the boards are prepared for well-dressing and the almost inevitable annual defeat of the cricket team is played out. Each year small details of the characters’ backstories are stitched into the village tapestry; hopes of love are raised and dashed; children are born; parents die; teenagers leave home; crimes and misdemeanours occur. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl, sightings of her father, rumours about her mother, mentions of other girls whose disappearance might be linked to hers in the news. All this is delivered in McGregor’s gorgeous yet understated prose. Hard to pull out quotes without filling the entire review with them but here’s a flavour: ‘Everything that might be said seemed like the wrong thing to say. The heating pipes made a rattling noise that most of them were used to and the mood in the room unstiffened’; ‘A soft rain blew in smoky clouds across the fields’; ‘The nettles and cow parsley came up in swathes, the bindweed trumpeting through the hedges’. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.