Tzameti, lines to a rondeau, chapters in The Art
of War. Cards per suit, steps to the gallows, loaves in a
baker’s dozen. Diners at the Last Supper, gods at
Valhalla’s banquet, dismemberments of Osiris.
Studio LP’s by The Cure, lunar months every
calendar year, primary members of The Thirteen
Club. Olives, olive leaves, arrows and stars on the Great
Seal of the United States. Players in a rugby
league team; teenagers starring in 13, the Broadway
musical; letters in Bixby, Oklahoma, the city
where Scott Westerfield’s Midnighters trilogy,
gripped by this troublous number, is set. Syllables till
the broken motif of this poem. Lucky for some.
– Stuart Barnes (from “Glasshouses”, UQP, 2016)
Jon McGregor is also obsessed by the number 13 too, his latest novel taking place in a small ex-mining village that is located near Reservoir 13, a region where, on page one, a thirteen-year-old girl goes missing, the book follows the impact of this disappearance and the lives of the villagers (there could possibly be thirteen main players but my mapping couldn’t reconcile to that number) over thirteen years, using thirteen chapters, each containing thirteen sections or paragraphs.
Readers of Jon McGregor’s other works will know his ability to play with shape and form, using the written language as his tool to convey messages that go beyond the simple sentence structure and his latest work is no different.
Using a detached, snappy style, almost journalistic, the short sharp sentences reveal more than what is simply presented on the page, for example, “It was only when they saw the first children on their way to school that Will Jackson remembered he was due at his son’s mother’s house, to fetch the boy for school.” The “son’s mother’s” revealing an ex-partner, somebody removed from Will, not a character in our tale. Each sentence likewise gently crafted, giving you a melancholic and ruminative work.
Winnie’s grandchildren came to visit at the end of the month, and she took them out picking elderflowers in the old quarry by the main road, filling a bin-bag with the foamy white flower-heads and carrying it home on their shoulders. She sat them at the kitchen table and had them zesting the oranges and lemons she’d bought ready, while she picked the flower-heads clean and set them to soak overnight. By the next day they’d lost interest, and refused to leave the television when she added the sugar and fruit juice and heated it gently through. When her daughter came for the children she gave them a bottle of the cordial. IT was still warm and the light shone through it, and Winnie knew it would never be drunk. Her daughter hugged her lightly and kissed her cheek and said they’d see each other soon. The children waved from the back of the car.
The tone and structure lends a lonely air to the whole work, as each sketched character laments their own isolation, all internalised as they move in and out of each other’s orbit. The ghost of the missing girl hovering on the fringes of their world. A desperately sad work, the themes of isolation and internal turmoil bubble along, but never descend into melodrama.
Even though there is a missing child, life in the village continues, returns to “normal”;
The room emptied and the chairs were stacked away. The floor was swept and the lights turned off and Tony went back to the bar.
Throughout this reflective work the ever present changing seasons also feature, nature continues with the birth of badgers, pheasants, foxes and a myriad of birds, also revealed alongside the annual fireworks, cricket match, Mischief Day, harvest display and other recurring community events.
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the big screen in the village hall and the sound of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ along the street. The Cooper twins were out for their first New Year, watching the fireworks from the Hunter place, their mother hurrying them back to bed as soon as the last rocket fell to earth. In the morning the snow was ankle-deep but by noon a hard rain had washed it away. The change came quickly, thick piles of snow falling in on themselves and hurtling away down drains and run-offs to the river, the river bright and loud with it and the streets left scrubbed and darkly gleaming and everywhere the first green tips of snowdrops nosing out of the soil. After the rain there was a quiet, the melting of roof-snow down drainpipes, and the calling of birds on thawing ground, and the whine of a chainsaw up in Hunter’s wood.
A novel that expertly draws on the slow passage of time, the recurring and the constants the features with the insignificance of individuality bubbling along like the local stream. I continue to remain a fan of Jon McGregor’s work, his book being one of the few novels written in English that I have read in the last twelve months, this book not changing my views on his ever-expanding oeuvre, meaning I will be searching out further new releases of his in the future.
The structure around the unlucky number “13” an interesting and haunting approach, with the “paragraphs” not forming a usual expected construction, concurrent events blending into one another as the lunar months pass, the passage of time ever present in the reading.
Longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, an award that this blog was originally established to follow, it is a book that is a worthy inclusion, and although I no longer follow the award itself it is a book that I would happily include on past shortlists. Given the style differs greatly from your standard “English Literature” fare, I believe it is a work that should go far when the winner of the 2017 award is debated.