Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Short Stories – This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, by Jon McGregor

About eighteen months ago, I read and reviewed Jon McGregor’s novel, If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things. It was one of those novels that staggered me, that left me haunted by its beauty, its elegant, its sheer power. If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things is a deeply moving and human account of the ordinary lives of the residents of one street on one remarkable day. It remains one of my favourite books of all time.

But somehow I’ve failed to pick up anything more by Jon McGregor in the last eighteen months. I’m not sure whether this has been a product of chance, or simply because I have so many hundreds of books I want to read – or perhaps because I so thoroughly loved and admired If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things that I was half afraid of reading something else by Jon McGregor, in case it would fail to live up to the superb beauty of that novel. And then last month I finally picked up his short story collection, This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, and proceeded to nearly cry on the train because of the utter beauty of his writing.

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You is a collection as strange, beautiful and complex as its title. It contains thirty stories, mostly set in and around Lincolnshire. Each story is different and powerful in its own way. Some are forty pages or so long, some one sentence. There are stories in third person, in first, in second. There are stories of the everyday and stories of the near impossible. There are stories about ancient murders and car accidents and there are stories about lost property or bad cups of tea. There are stories that broke me, stories that warmed me, stories that unsettled and startled me in their brilliance and originality. Of course there were also stories that confused and frustrated me, stories I think I’d have to read five times over before I were to fully understand them. Once again I have been amazed and impressed by the power and beauty of Jon McGregor’s writing.

Simply reading This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You was a wonderful experience. I am normally a fast reader, of fiction at least, but I purposefully took my time with this one. It’s only about two-hundred-and-fifty pages, but it took me over two weeks to finish, dipping in and dipping out, never letting myself get overwhelmed by reading too much in one go. Each story was so powerful I wanted to give it its own attention. I ended up reading nervously slowly, scared of missing a single perfect detail. I never started a short story unless I knew I had the time to read it all in one sitting. This is the sort of book that deserves that kind of attention, the sort of book I wanted to relish and savour the reading of.

I loved this collection as a whole. I loved the vague ties between the stories, the way they offer a slow and varying vision of the landscape and its people. Each story is incredibly different, and yet there is a solemn and often dark tone that runs throughout, building a consistent atmosphere.

Yet there are of course a few stories that especially stood out for me. One was the very first story, ‘That Colour’. In this two-page story, not much happens. Our narrator washes dishes while a woman stands at the window, commenting on the colour of the trees outside. And that is basically all. But it is such a testament to J McGregor’s incredible writing that this story becomes incredibly moving, incredibly significant – it becomes a story. I already tried and failed to describe the beauty of his writing the last time I reviewed one of his books. He writes with an elegance and subtly that is just astounding. The attention to detail is incredible. His writing is so carefully and expertly crafted and yet feels so natural. His prose always has a rhythm to it, and he captures the voices of his characters and narrators so well. Another thing I just love about McGregor’s writing is his ability to take the smallest moments in life, things we view as ordinary, and to describe them in such a way that they become both unfamiliar and newly beautiful.  

Another favourite was ‘In Winter The Sky’. This story is formed partly of the memories and reflections of a man haunted by a dark accident in his past, and partly of his wife’s half-written poetry. It is strange, haunting, unsettling and beautiful.

Or ‘We Call and Wave’, in which a young man on holiday with his friends after his final school exams swims out a little too far into the sea. It is genuinely one of the most haunting and brilliant short stories I have ever read, and for a story as reflective and eerily calm as this, it really did keep me on edge, forcing myself to read slowly, desperate to dash on to the end.

There are so many moments and stories in this collection that I simply can’t get out of my head. McGregor’s writing is consistently subtle and beautiful. He has this brilliant way of resolving stories by leaving them only half resolved, of taking you up to the ending and nearly abandoning you there. In several of these stories, you know what is about to happen, but McGregor doesn’t actually describe it, forcing you to complete the ending for yourself. It’s an incredibly effective and powerful technique.

In the end, This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You has become one of my all-time favourite short story collections. Gregor has the power to capture moments and feelings of significance with a beauty and subtly that is for me unrivalled. He is fast becoming one of my favourite modern authors, and I’m incredibly excited to read his other works.

Greatest strength: The sheer beauty of McGregor’s writing.

Greatest weakness: There were one or two stories I found somewhat confusing, such as ‘Supplementary Notes To The Testimony Of Appellants B & E’ or ‘The Last Ditch’. I don’t think I quite got their format. However, I might get more out of both on a reread, and this is a very minor point in what is, overall, a superb collection.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘It’s rare, though, to spend an hour watching the morning arrive like that… People are so busy… They don’t have the time to watch the colour bleed into the world each day.’

Next week: Six Lies, by Ben Adams



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