Tuesday, 12 June 2012

This isn't the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor (4/5)

The back says: A man builds a tree house by a river, in anticipation of the coming flood. A sugar-beet crashes through a young woman's windscreen. A boy sets fire to a barn. A pair of itinerant labourers sit by a lake, talking about shovels and sex, while fighter-planes fly low overhead and prepare for war.

These aren't the sort of things you imagine happening to someone like you. But sometimes they do.

Set in the flat and threatened fenland landscape, where the sky is dominant and the sea lurks just beyond the horizon, these delicate, dangerous, and sometimes deeply funny stories tell of things buried and unearthed, of familiar places made strange, and of lives where much is hidden, much is at risk, and tender moments are hard-won.

I say: I fell in love with McGregor’s writing when I first read If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and have stayed in love with it ever since. This is probably why I found this collection of short stories somewhat disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; I loved a lot of the stories, but some of them just sort of fell flat.

The reason being the writing.

I understand that a writer has to be somewhat flexible and maintain the ability to speak in several different voices, and that’s what I didn’t like with this collection: some of the voices weren’t written for me. I like the stories that show raw emotions and hint at jagged pasts; the stories that depict broken people and futile hope; I like stories told in a voice that reminds me that there is something larger than what is being said. That is exactly what McGregor has come to mean to me.

You take a breath and swim, fiercely, lunging through the water, blinking against the salt sting, heaving for air, and there’s a feeling running up and down the backs of your legs like the muscles being stretched tight but you keep swimming because you’ll be there soon, climbing out, pulling yourself back onto solid ground, and you keep swimming because there’s a chance that the current has been pushing you away from the shore, and you keep swimming because this isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you, you’re a good swimmer, you’re young, and healthy, and the rocks aren’t really that far away and it shouldn’t take long to get there and there isn’t anything else you can do but now there’s a pounding sensation in your head and a reddish blur in your eyes and a heavy pain in your chest as though the weight of all that water is pressing against your lungs and you can’t take in enough air and so you stop again, for a moment, just to catch your breath.
- p 140, We Wave and Call

I love that.

There are 30 short stories in this collection and I liked the majority of them. As almost always with me, what I loved I really loved, and what I didn’t like I really didn’t like. Some of them felt like writing exercises; which I suppose is a mean thing to say, but essentially I am a creature of comfort and

I want my McGregor the way I’ve always had him.

I should probably not that one of the reasons I'm being a tad whiny about this is because I think McGregor is one of the best contemporary writers I've ever read. Obviously that doesn't mean much to anyone but myself, but I want to know that I'm going to get blown away by the writing when I buy a book by him.

Every. Time.

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