on 4 June 2007
Having been utterly captivated by Jon McGregor's prose style in 'If nobody speaks of remarkable things', I opened 'So many ways to begin' with delicious anticipation. It does not disappoint. Whilst it does not have the instant panache of the beginning pages of his first novel, it beguiles and builds in a different way. The story of David Carter's journey through life works its way to and fro through memorabilia, building an intimate portrait of his marriage,his childhood passions and his not so brilliant career, and his search for his real birth mother. McGregor's prose is beautiful,poetic. I particularly enjoyed the interposing of alternative thoughts and behaviours that may or may not have happened, at key moments. They make you pause and consider, without stopping the flow of narrative or feeling heavy-handed. A lovely, lyrical book about everyday life.
on 13 May 2007
I loved Jon McGregor's critically acclaimed debut so it was with nervous excitement that I awaited this follow-up. It is a different book: meandering but with the same clarity of expression which made `If Nobody Speaks...' such a privilege to read. The story follows Museum-Curator and adopted son David Carter through the course of his life. It is at once a paean to forgotten times and a celebration of the course of post-war British history. Through mementos from his life, David gradually integrates the past with the present and carries the reader along with the persistent tug of time. In many ways it reminded me of John Banville's Booker winning novel `The Sea'. It has that same longing, the same concepts of remembering and forgetting. But this is a superior novel. Jon McGregor is effortlessly poetic; this is easy-to-read and full of everyday occurrences rendered with the author's razor-sharp observation. Jon McGregor is an emerging gem of an author and this book will see his reputation continue to rise.
Proof that 'If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things' was no one-off (how could writing that good possibly be a fluke), 'So Many Ways to Begin' again deals with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but bearing the weight of events in the past that deeply mark their lives. The style is again fractured in time, non-linear, but through its analogy of a museum of mementos, it slowly and simply builds up a solid, authentic and deeply moving exhibit of family-life in post-war Britain.
For David, a young man in Coventry who has always dreamed of being a museum curator, a structured life where everything can be organised, labelled and its provenance traced, the discovery that he has been adopted as a child upsets the stable view he once had of the world. The author contrasts David's relationship with loving parents who aren't his own with his wife Eleanor's strict upbringing in Aberdeen, and charts the emotional journey both of them have to make together to understand who they are and how their upbringing has shaped their lives.
McGregor's prose is deceptively simple, but bears deep emotional force in those well-chosen words and situations, raising them to the level of pure artistry, forging poetic and subtle resonances to social behaviour and familial relationships, to the secrets people keep, the emotional weights they carry, and the impact they have on their lives and on those of the people around them.
on 27 February 2007
I've just finished the book and I have to say its the best one I've read in a while. It follows the story of David who was given up for adoption during the war and finds out by accident when he is in his twenties. It's a story about his beautiful romance with his wife and their family life together and also a story of their relationships with their parents. David's anger at his adoptive parents for deceiving him and his search for his natural mother are beautifully written and gripping. His wife, Eleanor and her volatile relationship with her mother that she cannot wait to escape and the effects it has on her in later life are truly heartbreaking.
A beautiful story, it had me crying at stages, though by no means is it depressing. You really get to identify with the characters and feel for them and I really felt involved in the story. The main theme of the book is family life, in all the different ways it happens, but I think my favourite parts were those about David and Eleanor's relationship over the years.
I have loved both of the authors book, this one is much easier to read and a far more gripping story. I intend to read any other books he writes. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Heartwarming and a very positive book, a really lovely, well written story.
on 24 January 2007
Jon McGregor - So Many Ways To Begin
Anyone who enjoyed Jon McGregor's debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things would probably also like his follow up, So Many Ways To Begin.
If Nobody Speaks... was notable for its dreamy, poetic tone and the way the story unfolded in shards like a broken plate being pieced together in no particular order. So Many Ways... also follows a non chronological path and has a similar ethereal quality.
The story centres on David Carter, a museum curator born in 1945. At the start of the story, he is disillusioned and restless, on a quest although the reader doesn't know quite what he is searching for. In the opening chapter it becomes apparent that David has just returned from a funeral, one that his wife Eleanor did not attend. Why she did not becomes another strand of the story.
The novel unfolds in an unconventional way: David is about to set off on a trip and he is sifting through his collection of mementos. Each chapter centres around one of these, the reader transported back to the time when the object in question was obtained. In between, we shift to the present again in 2000, where David is making arrangements for his journey.
McGregor's style is again other-worldly and lyrical, his sentences flowing with a soft rhythm that belies their external simplicity. Some of the story concerning Eleanor's past is told as conjecture from David's point of view, which adds a hazy, misty element: this happened, or this, or this, as the narrative follows the possible options of people's reactions from a past he is guessing at.
Throughout the story, we are aware of David and Eleanor's relationship - the difficult life Eleanor led as a child, the way it hastens the union between her and David, the career frustrations and more serious sequelae that arise from Eleanor's swift move to David's town of Coventry. We learn of the ups and downs of their marriage and sense the tenderness and love that runs as an unbroken thread throughout all their problems.
I gave this book 1/2 stars because I really enjoyed it. The missing half star is for nebulous reasons - having recently finished the wonderfully taut and disciplined Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, Jon McGregor's more floaty jumping-in-time style seems less cohesive and structured, but since this is a key aim of the author's, perhaps it is unfair of me to lop off half a star for it. Still, 4 and a half stars is a high recommendation and anyone who was swept away by McGregor's first novel will probably love this one as well.
on 7 February 2011
This is a rare novel. It is the story of the mundane, but extraordinary. It's difficult to explain it in a review in a way that will do it justice, so I don't think I'll try. Suffice it to say, McGregor writes with such beauty and such restrained emotion about the sliding doors of life that it is impossible not be moved by this book. I cried numerous times throughout it and at the end. There is a particular chapter that I re-read often and it one of those books that left me with the feeling of "someone else in the world thinks like me". This book already feels like an old friend and I think of it often; my sign of a great book.
on 2 January 2008
In my reading group, we often have a range of reactions to the books we read and this lends a vitality to our discussions. However, when we read Jon McGregor's first book a couple of years ago, it received universal high praise, perhaps more than for anything we have read before or since. So this book, his second, had a lot to live up to.
I really enjoyed it. McGregor has a close and careful style that can illuminate the poetic within ordinary events. His two main characters, after their brief long distance romance as teenagers, settle down to a married life in which disappointment and depression become frequent occurrences. And yet, because of McGregor's sensitivity to nuance and atmosphere, and his affection for his characters, I found myself drawn into their lives, into the rooms in their house, sharing their small triumphs and their sadness with them.
The plot lines involving a mother who abandons her baby, another who shoulders the anger of this adopted son when he discovers the truth about his parentage in adult life, and a third who cruelly undermines her daughter's ambitions, are not particularly original or distinctive. Where a lesser novelist might have woven them into a standard work, McGregor once again skilfully helps us to see the remarkable within the everyday.
on 8 September 2007
The very title of Jon McGregor's novel,"So Many Ways to Begin" is enticing. One is likely to ask so many ways to begin what? But at the end of a longish read is the reader's initial enticement rewarded?
The basics of McGregor's novel is straight forward. David Carter has a facination for the mundane and ordinary artefacts of everyday life. His interest is so keen that he begins to collect ordinary artefacts, an interest which in turn leads David to eventually take up a job as a junior curatorial assistant. David enjoys what appears to be a normal and stable family life until he discovers that he was given away at birth to the family he now knows as his own. This triggers a search for his biological mother. Meanwhile, David meets and forms his own relationship with Eleanor and it is broadly this relationship and the search for his biological mother that the novel portrays.
The beginnings that the novel suggests are many, varied and interesting. Some of these beginnings are the many ways in which we might try to piece together the history that makes us who we are. It could be in a conversation between lovers where personal histories are revealed. It could be in the slip of the tongue as in the case of David's senile aunt, Julia, when she unwittingly reveals his origin. Or it could be in the collection of the everyday artefacts of life.
For a relatively new writer and for a second novel, McGregor in a quiet and subtle way tackles some big themes. For me one important example of such themes was the issue of personal identity. The novel asks questions such as who are we and what is it that makes us who we are? In addressing these issues McGregor brings a refreshing approach to answering them.
It is also a story of an enduring and tender loving relationship between the two main characters, David and Eleanor. Through varous trials and tribulations David and Eleanor pull through together with a love for each other that remains intact. McGregor presents these two characters in a warm and tender light. For instance, the following passage depicts one of those tender moments: "He leant forward again and kissed her cheek, touching the corner of her jaw with two fingers as he did so, running his fingers across her face as he pulled away, nudging the tip of one finger between her lips. She kissed his finger, and he drew it back, and they both dropped their eyes looking across the floor, looking around the darkened room, waiting".
McGregor's approach is to narrate the novel through the voice of an omniscient narrator. The narrator's tone is one of care and compassion for the characters he observe. It is not an intrusive voice. This approach had the effect of drawing sympathy, but not sentimentality, from me for the characters.
McGregor's language is broadly unadorned. Metaphor and simile are far and few between but when they are used it is with great effect. For example, the chapter in which David's aunt describes her meeting and subsequent relationship with one major William Pearson is at once cleverly rendered and profoundly touching. MeGregor uses the event of a ballroom dance as an extended metaphor to describe events that sometimes occur in relationsips.
McGregor's novel is ultimately a history of two "ordinary" lives to which he gives importance and significance. It is a history that dares to show how simple everyday events and human behaviour can mean something to us. It is about the importance of us knowing who we are and the significance we place on family connections. For me So Many Ways to Begin is a very good novel that should be read by all who cares about the truth of "ordinary" lives.
on 16 August 2006
I loved "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things" and rushed to buy this book as soon as it was published. It didn't disappoint. It is easier to understand and has a real "unputdownable" quality; the characters and their lives are beautifully drawn and revealed gradually as McGregor "drip feeds" his reader using literary, unpretentious language. I particularly like the way he withholds judgement or blame in this novel, thus posing hidden questions for his readers to answer. I found this to be a sad book in many ways, but also filled with hope, a particularly good choice for anyone born in the 40's or 50's perhaps!
on 16 January 2007
The spare, understated style belies the complex, powerful emotions contained in this beautifully written and exceptionally moving story of what might appear to be an ordinary family. As a young adult, museum curator David Carter discovers by accident that he was adopted as a baby, and this knowledge haunts him throughout his life. While his wife suffers with the fallout from her own abusive childhood and struggles with depression, trying to bring up their daughter without inflicting the pain her own mother inflicted on her, David grows increasingly lonely and alienated from his family. The bittersweet conclusion left me with a lump in my throat and McGregor's characters ensconced in my heart. I loved his first novel, "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things"; I think this one is many times better. I can't wait for his next one.