Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor: Surviving catastrophe

Cover image for Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor Four years ago, I started my review of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 with a paean of praise for this writer who seems to excel himself with each new book. His superb new novel, Lean Fall Stand, continues that progression with its story of a man returning from his beloved Antarctica, irrevocably changed, and his wife who must find a way to care for him.

All that ice and snow and sea and sky. Glaciers and ridges and icebergs and scree. Weathering and wind-form and shear. The air so clear that distances shrank and all the colours shone

Robert is a technical assistant who’s spent much of the past thirty years in Antarctica, providing backup for scientists. He’s almost at the end of his stint with Luke and Thomas who have been updating the maps he remembers being drawn. He’s an old hand, eager to share his stories; they’re slightly disparaging but fully aware that it’s Robert’s skills that will keep them alive. In the final few days, Thomas decides to record the landscape using the camera his girlfriend gave him. It’s an outing which will end disastrously, something Anna has been expecting for her entire marriage to Robert. Summoned to Santiago, she knows her husband has had a stroke but not the extent of its damage. Theirs is a marriage based on an ‘anomaly’ as she likes to call it, one which accommodates her career and affords her an independence she almost takes for granted. Robert’s return upends all that. Their children can’t seem to grasp what’s happened, bombarding her with unrealistic suggestions, her employers are concerned yet still expect her to meet deadlines. Only Bridget, the widow of Robert’s best friend and colleague, grasps the situation, perhaps more so than Anna, herself. When Robert is persuaded to attend a support group, he’s reluctant but it proves to be the saving of him, and perhaps of Anna, too.

He always had to reach for the words. As though they’d been put on a high shelf in the stores

The title of McGregor’s novel follows the trajectory of Robert’s stroke, from the storm-hit expedition to the rehabilitation which sees him become a very different man from the one who accompanied Thomas and Luke to Station K. While Lean breathlessly captures the disorientation and disorder of both the storm and Robert’s stroke, Fall and Stand are remarkable for their empathetic depiction of its aftermath. Robert’s loss of language is a hard blow – he’s a proud man who likes nothing more than to tell a story, robbed of that pleasure by aphasia and its frustrations. The support group scenes are particularly skilfully drawn, each member’s speech tic different, some profane others almost poetic, depicted with a gentle compassionate humour, a compassion which extends to the portrayal of Anna’s ambivalence about her new role as carer. It ends with what reads almost like a prose poem, a description of what happened to Robert in Antarctica, in quiet contrast to the frantic passage as he struggles for comprehension when the stroke felled him. A quietly powerful book, unafraid to explore the boundaries of language. Surely a shoo-in for a multitude of literary prizes

4th Estate: London 9780008204907 336 pages Hardback

26 thoughts on “Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor: Surviving catastrophe”

    1. It is, although – and I don’t want to put you off – there’s a great deal of language play to reflect Robert’s reduced state and the communication in the support group. I hope you’ll give it a try, Annabel.

  1. I have somehow inexplicably lost my copy of ‘Remarkable Things’ as well as Sarah Moss’s Night Waking – perhaps they are happy together somewhere! But it will need replacing as he is one of my favourite writers. As will Sarah. Will be reading the new one for sure.

  2. I adore McGregor and this sounds wonderful. I’m really annoyed because I have a ticket to watch him speak about this tomorrow and now I have to attend a work meeting! I’m hoping it wraps up quickly so I can hear him.

    1. That IS annoying! Fingers crossed for a quick meeting. In case you don’t know, I think this is being read on Radio 4, at least that’s what I’m pretty sure I heard, not entirely awake, this morning.

  3. Like many of the other commenters, I loved Reservoir 13 with its beautiful, elliptical way of viewing a community tragedy. Despite good intentions, however, I haven’t read any of Mcgregor’s subsequent novels. While this latest is tempting I’m afraid that for me it will have to wait in line behind Remarkable Things & So Many Ways to Begin.

  4. Although I have never really fancied most of Mcgregor’s novels, this sounds interesting. I read If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things years ago, and wasn’t bowled over

    1. They are , Karen. He summons up the scene beautifully and there’s an immediate urgency to Robert’s predicament. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by this one.

  5. This does sound like an excellent novel – powerful yet understated is the impression I’m getting from your review. Probably not one for me if I’m being honest as I fear the storyline about Robert’s stroke would cut too close to the bone. Nevertheless, I can see why you’re making a strong case for it – the style seems right up your street…

    1. ‘Powerful yet understated’ would certainly be an apt description, Jacqui. It would be a difficult novel for a reader who’d either suffered a stroke or seen a loved one endure the effects although Robert does ultimately come through it.

  6. I’m so glad to hear this one lives up to his last. I will most certainly eventually read it, like I did Reservoir 13!

  7. How interesting to think about this as a companion to Reservoir 13, with the idea of how we struggle for meaning and connection, with what gets absorbed and buoyed, what is lost and what is retained, and how things do and do not change. I still have a vague idea of wanting to read everything of his but only have read three to date (maybe I should add him to my MustReadEverything lists, but they have started to make me nervous lately, always growing and such).

    1. Very much the themes with which McGregor is concerned. He ‘s not prolific – this is his fourth novel and fifth book – but each one is so beautifully and carefully written, I can forgive him that!

  8. Just dropping back to say that I steeled myself and listened to the abridged version of this on BBC Sounds recently – and you’re quite right, it’s a very compelling book. I thought McGregor’s use of language was so impressive, particularly in the passages about Robert’s stroke (the mixing up of words and syllables etc.). Indira Varma was the reader, and she did a terrific job with it. ‘Quietly powerful’ is spot on.

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