Wednesday 28 December 2011

So Many Ways to Begin

So Many Ways To Begin by Jon McGregor
When I was first living really alone post divorce I was living in Chesterfield. To fill my non-working hours I was re-immersing into reading; because I had practically no money and was feeling very financially vulnerable I would sit in the library reading then I would pick out a handful of books, take them home and begin each in turn until something really caught me. One day I was browsing a bookshop and picked up a book called 'If nobody speaks of remarkable things'. This book was new, in hardback, so although the first few pages spoke to me I put it back on the shelf thinking I would look out for it later. The title however vanished from my brain and it was nearly a year later when I found mention of it in a newspaper and was able to seek it out. It lived up to my first impressions and was worth the wait. So many ways to begin is Jon McGregor's second book and is equally lovely.

It is the story of David, who finds his provenance is not quite as he had understood and spends far too much energy seeking something he imagines will be more real, and of Eleanor, who has run away from her origins and seems to be equally affected by the grief of lost roots. It is a quiet story about the unfolding of life, the small things, how things often do not turn out the way we planned, and how it might take a lifetime to appreciate things they way they are. David is a museum curator and the story chapters are headed as if they are descriptions of the listed artefact, each item a means to tell a small part of the story:

"Examination results, Scottish Highers, July 1967
A single sheet of paper, slightly larger than letter-sized, an expensive-looking rough-grained texture with a circular watermark just visible about halfway down the page. The name of the examinations board at the top, an address, a reference number. An official seal at the bottom, lipstick red and frilled at the edges. A ruled table with columns for subject, paper, date, and grade. The thick black type that can change a life. The paper held delicately, at arm's length, as though creasing it or tearing it would invalidate what it said. As though the ink were still wet and could be smudged or removed." (p.136)

It is also a book about history and about memories and how significant small things can become. Everything about the book is slightly delicate, the writing is only just there, completely understated, the characters hint at themselves, revealing little bits in brief moments of conversation or thoughts. Such books are a stark contrast to reads like War and Peace, that encompass huge swathes of people and history, they are just a tiny corner of existence, but it tells you far more about the human experience than Tolstoy does. It's hard to describe the story because it is just their life. It left me with just a sense of plus ├ža change.


  1. I still think "If Nobody Speaks..." is one of the most amazing novels ever, his other two are good and like you I enjoyed So Many Ways.

    Jon is such a lovely self effacing man (I teach at the school where his son is in Nursery and have known him for some time). Not often I get to name drop! Tee Hee.

  2. I loved 'If nobody speaks of remarkable things' so I shall get this one. I didn't know he'd published a second one.

    P.S. Thanks for the Freecycle idea - we got a couple of video players via them a couple of years ago but I had forgotten all about them.


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