Two beautiful things came together last week in a way they so rarely do for me: A Sunday afternoon with nothing much to do and a book I did not want to stop reading.
It was the perfect way to read a novel I stumbled across on a website and immediately requested from my library because I loved the poetic title. (I choose many books that way, oddly.) It’s called “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” and it’s the first novel by Jon McGregor. Published in 2002, it was nominated for the Booker Prize. It’s a remarkable novel.
Now, a paragraph about me. I have this affinity for stories that are hard to explain. Take, for instance, Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” It’s one of my favorite plays and I had the joy of directing it once. I read it at least once a year but when people ask me what it’s about, I have to give it some thought. On the surface, it’s about an elderly woman who wants to go back to see once more the home where she was happiest. She is constantly thwarted in her attempts by her son (who’s unwilling to look back) and his wife (who just doesn’t want the old lady to do ever enjoy herself). Eventually, she gets there and finds some sort of peace. So there’s no plot to speak of, but it’s compelling to me because it’s about the choices people make that bring them to a point in their lives when they wake up and wonder how it is they got to that point. It’s not a crisp, ever-evolving plot; it’s real life. You’ll see why this is important in a moment.
So, back to Jon McGregor. First of all, look at the beauty of the title and its near iambic pentameter; you almost expect it to start a sonnet. McGregor has written several more books, all with intriguing titles: “This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You,” and “Which Reminded Her, Later” and “So Many Ways to Begin.” I forgive many things inside a book if the title moves me.
But there’s nothing to forgive in this novel. It’s simply beautiful. The novel takes place in one day in which something horrible happens. We don’t know what it is that happens until the very end, but we know it’s tragic and that it will happen to one of the nameless people we grow to care about deeply over the course of the novel.
The characters are all residents of one block of what seems like a row house in England. There are young people who probably party too much, there is a little girl who can see angels, there is an elderly man who cannot bear to tell his wife of so many decades that he is dying, there is a single father struggling to raise his little daughter though an accident left him unable to use his hands. All these characters and more spend this day doing unremarkable things, not knowing that it will end with a remarkable thing, changing everything for at least one of them.
Through it all is a college student with bad eyes who documents the comings and goings of the block with a Polaroid camera. He is working on a dissertation about death rituals and, because of this, a pall of death hangs over the novel. We don’t learn most of the characters’ names. They are “the boy in Number 18” and “the man with the carefully trimmed mustache” and “the girl with the square glasses.” McGregor toys with us, putting all the characters in harms way at one time or another during the novel and you find yourself holding your breath, thinking, “Please, not him” then thinking, again, “Please, not anybody.”
Between chapters describing the day of the event is the story of a girl who was there that fateful day, and what happens to her afterward. It seems jarring at first, but then it all comes together in an ending that’s maybe not supported throughout the rest of the book, but which works, perhaps because I so wanted it to.
Anyway, this book put another writer on my reading list: Jon McGregor is someone I look forward to getting to know.