Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

"So many ways to begin", Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury, 2006)

"The March" is 1.5 spacing, 367 pages, big format. McGregor's is the standard paperback size, half the thickness of "The March" though it has more pages - 373. I'm a sucker for the writing in the same way that I'm charmed and moved by the style of Cinema Paradiso. In Cinema Paradiso there's sentimentality (first love, waiting in the rain), and yes the main plot might contain "clichés" (the blindness of Alfredo the projectionist) but each scene has touching intrinsic interest; there are lots of busy particulars. At times it's artful (the wrist-watch and the empty square) but that doesn't interfere. The same points can be made regarding "so many ways to begin".

McGregor's style is sometimes described as poetic. Maybe that's because

  • There are lists of details (e.g. p.37 describing what he likes about museums - "scribbled designs for the world's first steam engine, spotted with candlewax and stained with jam")
  • The writing's spare - years and events are elided; paragraphs are often juxtaposed instead of being connected by recitative
  • He slips unobtrusively between past and future, between reality and might-have-beens, between hopes and regrets. Sometimes (e.g. p.205) he offers alternatives - "Eleanor walked quickly ... Or she walked tall ...Or she ran" - even if the event only happened once

The artfulness? Well, there are the usual novelistic coincidences and parallels (Mary and Dorothy in chapter 60; the choice of Coventry, etc). Chapters are headed by captions in the style of museum labels - "Tobacco tin; used for storing buttons, beads, safety pins, c.1960s". These are everyday exhibits from which one can make a narrative from a life much as a curator might try to manoeuvre a visitor around a show. And at the end (especially, but also whenever people look back) one is conscious of the inadequacy of trying to represent a life by episodes and objects - an ordinary life, where it "felt good to be doing this thing that was almost but never quite the same". That's about the nearest he gets to epiphany. My "book of the year".

The format gives him flexibility - some chapters describe a moment or offer a past/present juxtaposition, some are enjambed narrative fragments. His strength is narrative rather than quotable, flashy highlights but he's never less than tidy - "She said nothing, waiting for the blurred sarcasm to wear itself out" (p.312).

There's lots of rubbing thumbs against things, and hair being pushed behind ears.

June, 2012

When I read this in 2007 I thought it was the best book I'd seen for years. I've been nervous about re-reading it in case I was disappointed. This week I thought I'd chance it. I still cried, though I felt more manipulated. The dialogue remains impressive, no need for quote-marks. The arching narrative is that a man whose childhood dream was to run a museum discovers he was adopted at birth, seeks his birthmother, finds that "Mary Friel" lives in Ireland, shows her his life using memorabilia, but even before he's finished, realises she's not the one.

In his early twenties he had met a girl. They like telling each other stories about themselves. Much that we learn of their pasts is by way of their stories. it's touching. They seem made for each other, but she never gets the degree she wanted, has mental problems. Secrets have consequences through generations, cause other secrets. He doesn't do much wrong though. On p.257 he says "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time", but usually he counts his blessings - meeting his wife-to-be was a fluke. On p.281 he's dismissed from his museum job after 23 years. His description of how curation requires the skill to "draw a visitor through a collection of objects and bring them out with a lived sense of one particular moment in time" makes it sound like writing. Once their daughter's left for university they find a new routine - "They were almost busy, as David joked to Eleanor one worn-out evening, and they were happy, in the ordinary ways which had evaded them for so long".

On re-reading I'm more surprized that his father's death and daughter's birth aren't covered in depth, and perhaps a few mysteries remain about his forebears. On p.38, still a boy, he digs up an old shoe in the garden. His father says "I'd say it's probably been in the ground these since '44 ... so it's older than you at least ... I wouldn't tell your mother about it though ... She might get upset".

In chapter 1 Mary Friel from Fanad gives birth in London while in service. Julia and the narrator's mother were her nurses. She gives her name as Bridget Kirwan from near Galway, leaves the child, marries Michael Carr back in Ireland. On p.92 it says "Her name was Mary, his mother said. She was young, fifteen or sixteen or seventeen, it was never quite clear ... She told Julia she was from Donegal". On p.212 he finds a hospital admissions card amongst Julia's junk, from "29th March, 1945" in the name of "Mary Friel. D.O.B. 14.11.??" with a signature. The Mary he visits says the date is wrong. Did she give her real name? Did she misremember the date?

August, 2023

Chapters are headed by a description of an object and a date, like a museum entry. This is a neat way of informing the reader about the period of the chapter. The sections where letters are exchanged are quick ways of giving background information.

Pages 50-54 (the wartime ballroom scene) are excellent. The dialogue (no quotemarks) is excellent throughout. Chapter 55 has something too close to an omniscient narrator. I like how he’s tried to package his life for Mary in the way he might have curated an exhibition.

After being lucky immediately after birth he’s undeservedly unlucky later – not in a big way, but his life could have been happier. He holds the family together, learns to cook. At the end he thinks about the chance events that led to his situation. He doesn’t think about what his life would have been had he met Anna before Eleanor.

He likes looking back for the first sign of something that’s happened. When a phrase/question is repeated in dialogue, it’s significant. I’m surprised he didn’t do the courses that were recommended to him. Perhaps we don’t get enough about his struggles when Eleanor was ill.

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