Tag Archives: So Many Ways to Begin

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: Life goes on…

Cover imageRegular 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.

Blasts from the Past: So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor (2006)

Cover imageThis is the first in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could. It’s quite possible that if I read them now I might not feel quite the same about all the titles I’ve raved about to anyone who would listen but I’ll only include the ones I’m still happy to recommend. It’s partly inspired by Janet’s Under the Reader’s Radar series over at From First Page to Last which kicked off with Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things reminding me how much I’d loved that book when I first read it. The other reason is that this blog tends to be all about recently published books with the odd mention of backlist titles thereby turning its back on a huge number of novels well worth reading. I already have a list in my head and I know that some titles on that list will be out of print but if that’s the case I’ll be sure to mention it. Some may be a little obscure, some not so much and others not at all. Some I’ve already written about elsewhere in the past. So, with a nod to Janet’s post for its inspiration, here’s my first blast from the past: Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin.

Set in post-war Britain, McGregor’s novel explores both history and the possibility of new beginnings. Since stumbling upon a tobacco tin, still filled with cigarettes, dating from the First Cover imageWorld War in his Auntie Julia’s treasure trove of memorabilia, David has been fascinated by the past. Regular trips to museums inspire a determination to run his own someday, and David takes his first step becoming a junior curatorial assistant in Coventry. On a field visit to Aberdeen he meets his future wife Eleanor, bright, sparky and determined to become a geologist as far from home as she can get. As Julia’s treasured memories become engulfed by her premature senility, she lets slip a secret that shatters David’s own history leaving him bitter and restless.

In vignettes constructed around small artefacts, often seemingly insignificant but freighted with a very personal meaning, this compassionate, quietly lyrical novel captures David and Eleanor’s lives and history – their disappointments and unhappinesses, their unfulfilled ambitions and their small compensatory joys. It’s both a tender exploration of a very personal history and an evocative portrait of post-war Britain.

What about you, any blasts from your own past you’d like to share?