So Many Ways to Begin, by Jon McGregor

Lost souls in a tangled quest for roots
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The Independent Culture

Jon McGregor is interested in the psychological effects of uncertain beginnings. In his debut novel, the highly acclaimed If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the central female character goes to Aberdeen to attend the funeral of a grandmother she has never met. In So Many Ways To Begin, museum curator David Carter takes his grown-up daughter Kate to the very same funeral. His wife, the depressive Eleanor, refuses to come, so bitter are her memories of a Scottish childhood blighted by maternal abuse.

David himself is deeply affected by the revelation late in life that he was adopted as a baby, and that his real mother was the elusive Mary Friel, a young Irish girl adrift in wartime London. So extreme is his reaction to this that his hands shake uncontrollably and he refuses to speak to his adoptive mother for weeks, causing her untold grief.

Less elegantly structured and less lyrical than its predecessor, So Many Ways To Begin abounds with echoes of the first novel, including David's affinity with found objects and the minutiae of time's debris. As a child he picks through the bombsites of post-war Coventry, making a bedroom museum of lost artefacts that acquire a deep significance for him. The souvenirs of his own life are meticulously itemised throughout the book.

Time and again, McGregor reminds us that these are ordinary people leading unremarkable existences. He is fascinated with chance, the small slips of circumstance that shape events. It is not so much the big dramas that matter: "Lives were changed and moved by much smaller cues, chance meetings, overheard conversations, the trips and stumbles which constantly alter and readjust the course of things, history made by a million fractional moments too numerous to calibrate or observe or record."

Sometimes his concern to pin down the essence of life through mundane detail can become slightly irksome, as can the too-frequent stylistic tic of offering alternatives: "She didn't say anything. She looked at the floor and nodded, or she looked straight at him and tried to say all the things she was feeling, or she turned to the window again."

This is a novel of character and atmosphere. The plot is simple: David grows up and marries Eleanor, whose estrangement from her family and the disappointment of giving up a promising career as a geologist result in a profound and chronic depression. The relationship between David and Eleanor from youth to age, imperfect, deeply loving, underpins the whole. David discovers his uncertain origins by chance and embarks on the on-off search for his real mother, a quest that leads eventually to Donegal, but not to resolution, or at least not of the kind he had imagined.

Here McGregor taps into the current upsurge of interest in genealogy fostered by access to census returns and the explosion of websites on the subject. Entering the unknown mother's name into a search engine, David encounters a whole poignant world of people putting forth feelers for lost ancestors.

While lacking the faintly numinous edge that characterised If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, this is still a book about the search for some greater meaning in the strange dance of chance. Why are beginnings so important? McGregor leaves us thinking that perhaps they really aren't. As there are so many ways to begin and so many possible alternative branches at every notch on the tree, does it really matter? Perhaps. He is nothing if not ambiguous, and it's to his credit that he eschews the neat tying up of every loose end. Everything dangles, yet a kind of weary peace descends.

Carol Birch's latest novel is 'The Naming of Eliza Quinn' (Virago)