A delightful book that is vividly descriptive and subtly gripping.
We are shown a single street in a northern town. The narrative records the actions of the people, almost of of them unnamed, and is like a documentary camera - observing but not judging, letting actions and words be their own story.
"In his kitchen, the old man measures out the tea-leaves, drops then into the pot, fills it with boiling water. He sets out a tray, two cups, two saucers, a small jug of milk, a small pot of sugar, two teaspoons. He breathes heavily as his hands struggle up to the high cupboards, fluttering like the wings of a caged bird"
The roving camera sees the same events from different angles - the boys playing with water pistols seen from their angle, that of their victim and that of a neighbour at a window. This binds the characters together - a common thread shared by overlapping lives. Imperfect lives - there is pain here; broken hearts, broken bodies, loss and dispair. The imperfect lives of ordinary people on a single ordinary day.
Alternating with this we have a first person narrative. A girl in her early twenties, who we come to discover was a resident of the street, facing her own personal crisis. And suddenly the reader's perspective shifts - the street becomes the past, becomes a story.
The threads are similar in their melancholic narrative. McGregor has a lightness of touch which conveys great emotional. He exposes souls with his words.
As the two threads develop, the overlap becomes greater, the story more compelling, the outcome more emotional, and the reader becomes a helpless observer in a stunning denouement
To say more would be to spoil a extraordinary book.
on 5 December 2009
One of the best books I've ever read and one of the few I will definitely re-read.
I fell in love from the very first page. The opening is beautifully poetic and although nothing really happened I was hooked and hoping that nothing continued to happen so that I could enjoy the prose.
Things did begin to happen, although they were every-day, mundane, unremarkable things made interesting by the writing.
The "chapters" alternate between the detailed, wonderful description of a typical late Summers day in a Northern street and it's residents, and a woman who used to live in that street dealing with some unwanted news years later as well as memories of a terrible event that occurred on the Summers day.
My favourite thing about the book is how it's written, but the story is one of the most moving I've read despite being one that is not particularly important or remarkable.
I had a tear in my eye as the terrible event occurred in the last few pages and felt for characters that I barely even knew.
But as I said, I'm not going to re-read this because of the story, I'm going to re-read it for the descriptions of things I never thought to notice. And because it's written unlike any novel I've read before.
on 5 December 2002
I understand some of the frustrations some readers have experienced in reading this book....but I liked it very much. I agree that the lack of development of character and the lack of involvement we can sometimes feel for his characters, means that at times we can feel too removed from what is happening to really care. BUT maybe this IS the point.
For me the positives far outweighed these negatives. McGregor provides us with incredibly vivid snapshots of what happens on this street on this particular day. Rarely have I come across a writer who can describe a scene in such detail without being tedious. These snapshots are enhanced by the fact that many of them are presented from different angles within minutes of each other. You are filled with the sense of being in the street, BUT only as an observer, which at times is fascinating.
Although, characterisation is not central to the book, there are some extremely moving pieces of characterisation which ARE developed; in particular the relationship between the elderly couple and the relationship between the father and the young girl.
Not everyone will have the patience to read this novel and not everyone will enjoy it. But in my opinion, it's well worth the risk. I'm looking forward to his next one.
on 4 July 2003
Just finished this and wanted to share my feelings. I feel as if I have been in a dream while I read it. The combination of detachment, people known only by physical characteristics or their house number, with intense involvement in the little details of people's lives makes for an extraordinary read.
The punctuation style was occasionally annoying, having to re-read speech to check exactly who said what. But overall the style worked, adding to the dreamlike quality. It reminded me a little of Ian McEwan's 'The Cement Garden' - that hot, late summer feeling, with tragedy like a thunderstorm building in the distance.
I enjoyed the anonymity of the characters - no one from the past had a name, until Shahid is named at the moment of crisis, and the man with the damaged hands calls and calls his name, trying to use its power to heal, or at least make the world notice. I wonder what the narrator (anonymous, like the 2nd Mrs de Winter) will call her twins?
Of course the novel has its flaws, but I found it unputdownable, much easier to read than reviews had led me to expect, and I think its little details will stay with me for a long while.
on 13 December 2014
A stunning opening chapter is somehow completely different from the remainder of the book, which is equally amazing. We flip flop by chapter between two different stories of people whose lives are both connected and unconnected depending on how you see it. The flip flop nature means suspense and intensity builds through a chapter, and then there's a fresh change back to the other story that you'd forgotten about, and then vice-versa, etc. My enduring memory of this book, which I read years ago, is feeling so head-to-toe like I'm inside the book. The words seemed to have this kind of texture to them. I wasn't processing words in my head, I was living in the story, hearing the minute sounds from the licking of lips to subtle creaking of furniture; the rain against the window. If someone walked past the window I would feel the warmth of the sun on my back; if they wrapped their hands around a mug of tea, my hands felt warm. Everything was so real.
People didn't have names, but they had identity (I usually read fiction and just lose track of Andy Helen Dave and Petula - because I don't care about them!). The writing didn't have structure, but it was clear. Speech wasn't in quotes but I heard people's voices.
And that bit with the old couple in the road when it's raining - even now it brings a tear to my eye!
To me this book is elevated above all others and I love it to bits!
Obviously it's a taste thing, a friend of mine wasn't too keen - but most of them are!
on 1 March 2004
John McGregor's debut novel is a finely-observed and acutely moving story set in an unremarkable northern town. The book's tension is centred in "the incident" - an awful and heart-wrenching event which touches the minutely-observed lives of a dozen or so characters living close to the scene, a faily anonymous suburban street. And we are kept in the dark about the precise nature of this incident until the very end.
McGregor's mastery of time-shift enables him to start with a brief introduction to the end-piece, and then shift backwards, moving forward in small steps to show us how each of the characters came to be involved.
But the technical aspects do not do justice to what is a very moving book. I found myself thinking about the characters and their likely future lives for weeks after I had finished reading. McGregor's insight into character, relationships and family dynamics make this a wonderful, life-affirming and gripping novel.
I am not one to sit for hours ensconced in the pages of books, but this poetic and finely-crafted story did it for me.
I will be pre-ordering his 2nd novel!
on 10 December 2003
This is a book to curl up with on a summer afternoon when you don't need to do anything and you can just enjoy reading.
Anyway I fell in love with it.
The form of the book is unusual: the characters don't have names (because too many of them know each other only by sight), and the proportion of description to event is much higher than in most novels (because this is a novel about a mostly ordinary day and mostly ordinary people). As the title says: it's a book about all the things that we don't notice because we don't think they're worth noticing because they're not exciting enough. Or about the lives which are ordinary, in which life-changing things happen, without fanfare.
Too often books are called poetic because they unload job-lots of flowery and sentimental adjectives and because the writer cares more about how he's writing than what he's writing about. This is genuinely really poetic because it uses language carefully so that you feel what it is like to be alive in this northern town; the quality of experience (the smell of a street after rain), the anonymous characters - who are each of them more real than hundreds of characters who are given names and stock personalities by their authors, the way the emotions of the characters shift and change. Its got an unusual style, but that's not because it's style and not content: the style is only there for the content.
It is a book for anyone who has ever thought how strange and beautiful the world is, who has ever fallen in love with someone who didn't seem to notice, who has ever been lonely and felt that they can't talk about the decisions they have to make, or who has found someone that they can talk to, who has ever realised with wonder that all those faces in the crowd are people with lives and emotions of their own...
on 4 January 2006
This book is a beautiful tale of life on an everyday kind of street. Jon Mcgregor looks at the world in a completely new and different way, and makes even the smallest things important, poignant, and absolutely beautiful. The characters in his book are people that we all could know - the typical English kinds of people, and the events that happen could happen to any of us. Somebody needed to write this book, and Mcgregor has done it wonderfully. After all, as he says, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be remarkable?
A great book excellently written. McGregor has an individual and unusual style with short paragraphs, making his prose almost poetic. I often dislike books of this kind, but something about this style just really appealed to me - I suppose it does come down to individual taste, but I'm surprised that other reviewers haven't rated it more highly.
The story alternates between a beautifully observed description of the lives of a number of people living on a street in an anonymous UK town on an ordinary summer day - ordinary, that is, until a tragedy occurs - and a first person narrative set several years later by one of the characters there that day, who revisits and gains a new insight into what occured.
Although only one momentous event occurs - and even this is momentous in a fairly small and personal way (I'm trying not to give too much away) - the story is never dull and this is down to McGregor's skill in making descripions of ordinary life (preparing breakfast, students packing up their rooms, someone trying to light a barbeque) fascinating by way of his writing. The story moves cleverly between characters, which sustains the pace. There is an impending sense of doom, as small, ordinary actions build up to the eventual conclusion, that is very compelling.
There are also many small mysteries and dramas related to the characters which kept me glued to the pages. How did the man with scarred hands get injured, who is the mysterious boy at number 18 and why is taking pictures of the street, what is the news the first person narrator afraid of telling her mother?
As the story unfolds, some questions are answered but much is left nicely unresolved. The ending is poignant and unexpected with a good twist, and has a message about the closed off existences most people live, not really noticing those around them. The fact that none of the characters (apart from one) are named adds to this sense of modern anonymity. I believed completely in all of the characters; from the old man afraid to tell his wife he is ill, to the students drifting as they try to decide what to do next, to the mother caring for her family.
It was utterly compelling and original, as well as being beautifully written. I can't really find anything to criticise. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading.
on 4 July 2006
If nobody tells you how great this book is, how will you know?
McGregor observes the seemingly mundane and makes it mesmerising, weaving the slowly evolving tale of one moment in time with the present life of one participant.
His observations of everyday things, most of which would pass un-noticed, are beautifully absorbing. As the story unfolds you are still left with vivid images but sufficient space to fill the gaps with your own thoughts.
Having been disappointed with much of what I've read this year, across many genres, I was captivated and inspired by this wonderful piece of writing. Quite simply remarkable.