Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Books – if nobody speaks of remarkable things, by jon mcgregor

(On the cover of the book there are no capital letters. I thought I’d honour McGregor’s choice.)

I refer you all to the first paragraph of my review of Life After Life, in which I ramble on about those books that are so fabulous and thoroughly amazing that you want everybody ever in the world to read them. And yes, this is another one of those books. if nobody speaks of remarkable things is truly on of the best books I have ever read, and certainly the best book I have read in the last year. Or perhaps two years. Since whenever it was I read Ishigruo’s Remains of the Day.

I have no words to explain the sheer brilliance of this book, but I can and will rant about how much I liked it.  if nobody speaks of remarkable things is a novel about the ordinary and the extraordinary. The books centres on one single street over one single day, in which normality is shattered by an awful event. Simultaneously we get the story of one of the street’s residents, looking back on that day from a few years on. It is a portrait of the normal existence of one street, and of the effects of tragedy, but it is also so much more. It is also a novel about death, family, friendship, love, life. I’m amazed at how this book encompasses so many snapshots of different bits of life in one single novel.

That McGregor manages to create such strong and moving characters by naming so few is incredible. Somehow the young man from number eighteen, the elderly couple from number twenty, the man with the scared hands, the twin boys, the girl with the short blonde hair and the little square glasses – all of these people come to life in details, in their actions, their movements, without ever being given the solid identifier of a name. And yet we recognise all the residents of the street as they appear again and again, moving in and out of view for the reader. It’s an incredible achievement.

The story I found the most moving is that of the old husband and wife from number twenty. It is a wonderfully poignant and moving portrait of a fairly unremarkable couple, who in being normal, in simply loving one another, are of course remarkable. What McGregor achieves here is to show the subtle beauty of everyday existence.

McGregor’s use of language is also astounding. The novel is to an extent experimental in form, but is never difficult to read. Every sentence is beautiful crafted without ever being overpowering or cloying. He builds suspend and intrigue wonderfully, and his writing is of such power and subtle elegance that I found myself almost moved to tears by the most ordinary and simple of scenes and events. The writing is just incredible. For example:

He looks at the sheer blackness of the air, and he holds his breath.

He wonders how so much water can resist the pull of so much gravity for the time it takes such pregnant clouds to form, he wonders about the moment the rain begins, the turn from forming to falling, that slight silent pause in the physics of the sky as the critical mass is reached, the hesitation before the first swollen drop hurtles fatly and effortlessly to the ground. He thinks about this, and the rain begins to fall.

One, two, three drops at a time, a slow streak down a bedroom window, a wet thud onto a newspaper page, a hiss onto barbecue coals.

And after these first kissed hints there is the full embrace, the wetness of the sky pouring suddenly down upon this street, these houses, this city, falling with a strange quietness at first, gently gathering momentum until suddenly there is a noise like gravel slung at windows the rain is falling hard, heavy, bouncing off the tarmac with such force that at ground level it’s hard to tell if the rain is coming up or down, pounding the pavement and skidding across the hot dry surfaces of the street, gushing down rooftops into gutters and cracked drains, washing against windows and worn-out windowframes, hammering insistently against anything left open to the sky.

Never in my life did I realise anyone had the power with words to make ‘it starts to rain’ into this incredible piece of writing.

The novel is split between third person omniscient narrations of the street, and the narrative of the unnamed girl with the short blonde hair and the little square glasses from number twenty-two. This narrative too is beautifully strong. The characterisation both of the girl and her parents, especially her mother, are brilliant, and the insight into the consciousness of this one person is wondrously deep and realistic. McGregor deftly explores perspective by giving us both her account and the young man from number eighteen’s account of her. Together we form a lasting impression and becomes a fully-fledged and human character with whom you just can’t not sympathise with.

It is entitled if nobody speaks of remarkable things, but this novel deals often with the unremarkable, or least with what seems unremarkable on the surface. It is a book that attempts to show up the sheer remarkable nature of ordinary everyday life, and does so superbly. It is everything that in my mind good novels should be: gripping, thought-provoking, fascinating, beautifully written, and thoroughly and wonderfully poignant.

As you can see, I really can’t praise this book too highly.

Greatest strength: I think the sheer beauty and elegance of the writing, and the fact that this incredible writing manages with such subtly to communicate the brilliance of ordinary and extraordinary life.

Greatest weakness: Nothing whatsoever. An impeccably flawless and incredible book.

Let’s finish on a quote: He says there are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are. He says, if nobody speak speaks remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?


Next week: I'm not actually sure yet. You may have to wait and see…

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