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Nottingham Castle

So Many Ways To Begin

4 October 06 words: James Walker
Jon McGregor, one of Britain's finest new writers is a Nottingham fella and a fan of LeftLion. So we had a read of his new book

Jon McGregor is one of Britain’s finest writers. His first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things won both the Betty Trask prize and a Somerset Maugham travel award. In addition it was the only debut novel longlisted for the 2002 Booker prize and the only entry for a debutant novel. Not bad for a twenty six year old. His second novel, So Many Ways to Begin, has also been long listed for this years Booker. Set in post-war Britain and spanning two generations we are taken on a journey into the past and the possibility of new beginnings for the main protagonist and his kin.

The novel could be described as post modern for two reasons. Firstly the structure does not follow a traditional linear narrative, instead stories emerge from the selection of artefacts which begin each chapter, giving us snippets of information which slowly begin to create a bigger picture. This technique may be due to McGregor’s filmmaking background although having spoken to him about this it would appear he feels the influence of his degree in Media Technology and Production may have been blown out of proportion. Having said that, the juxtaposition of various stories from past and present through these artefacts is cinematic in nature and a technique which works extremely well, particularly given the theme of the book.

The second reason this could be described as a postmodern novel is due to the themes running through the book, in particular the importance of authenticity and history. This is cleverly explored through David Carter who collects objects and has an interest in anything which tells him of the past. As a child David is taken with a Viking ship in the Greenwich Maritime Museum. He runs his hands over it and is overcome with excitement. He wants to ‘push his face into the rough-grained wood and smell the salt tang of sweat and sea adventure, to sit on the bench and imagine the lurch of the open ocean.’ Although he is suspicious that it ‘wasn’t a little more crumbling and worn’ it is only later on that he finds out that it was a replica.

This discovery angers David because it renders the object meaningless and stands for everything he despises. As he explains with earnest scorn ‘you can’t learn anything about history by looking at made-up things’ and here lies the crux of the story. The ship is certainly a metaphor for our own times and could clearly be used as a critique of contemporary culture whereby style has replaced substance, the imaginary has replaced the real. This, at a political level, is worrying. One need only look at the tactics of New Labour to see the dangers in spinning out truth and presenting convenient fragments of truth.

The purpose of the Viking ship within the novel is to serve as a metaphor for David’s life as he later discovers he is adopted and that his own life is not as it seems. These dual themes are then used to explore the nature of relationships and cleverly question and provoke the need for structured narratives in our personal lives, particularly through the main couple in the book, David and Eleanor.

David is brought up lovingly by his adopted parents who he is very close to. He is obsessed with knowledge, artefacts, ‘things’ - anything which gives him an insight into the past. Eleanor on the other hand is raised by her birth parents but her mother is abusive. This has a psychological effect on her and contributes to her mental breakdown. Rather than looking for belonging she is keen to distance herself from her family and escape to university. Biological roots in this sense are no guarantee of happiness, it is the quality of the relationship rather than their authenticity which matters. This is subtly hinted at by Eleanor when David rants on about the deception of the Viking ship; ‘it’s better than nothing though, isn’t it…it gives you an idea at least, wouldn’t you say.’

One of the many strengths of McGregor’s writing is the depth of his characterisation. David, for example, may demand truth yet he is frugal with it himself. On many occasions he is given the opportunity to discuss Eleanor’s mental illness but he can’t, he doesn’t know how to or where to begin, which, inadvertently makes him as guilty as his adopted parents for hiding the truth of his birth and the museum for embellishing the history of the Viking ship. To be human is to live in contradiction, to adapt, to try and fail and try again. McGregor reminds us of this and should be commended for producing such an excellent follow up to his debut novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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