Bloomsbury, £14.99, 262pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
This Isn't The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, By Jon McGregor
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Friday 27 January 2012
Ten years ago, Jon McGregor's first short story was published in Granta magazine. "In Winter The Sky" was about a teenager who, driving back home after a romantic tryst, is so distracted by the warm memory of the girl he has just kissed, that he runs over a man and kills him. He doesn't tell a soul. Having long since married the girl, the story ends as he confesses to her the secret that has burdened, and shaped, their relationship. The dead body, its furtive roadside burial, and the baleful weight it has exerted over the years, becomes a metaphor for the unmentionable secrets that couples carry.
Three acclaimed novels and numerous stories later, McGregor re-writes "In Winter The Sky" for his latest collection. The man's account now runs parallel to his wife's version, written far more self-consciously with scored-out phrases and artfully constructed sentences. Their joint account is now as much about storytelling as about its tellers. The story is a beautiful, doom-laden one, dominated by an all-seeing sky – "a shimmering blue silence from which there is no hiding place" – and it sets the tone for the book.
McGregor's writing is so distinctive that it becomes hard to compare to another. There is a precision and a poetry to his prose. Life, inner and outer, is so meticulously dissected that events appear to happen in slow motion. There is, in these brooding stories, that same sense of impending cataclysm that gave his debut, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, its intrigue. Just as "In Winter The Sky" switches gears from a coming-of-age love story to that of accidental murder and guilt, so there are belly-churning flips in others. The three-page "We Were Just Driving Around" captures the spirited voices of teenagers in a car, making airy plans for their future, when levity lurches into darkness in the last sentence, like a curtain coming down on their lives. A young woman at the heart of "Wires", who is saved from a would-be accident by two men, realises she has fallen prey to a sinister new threat. A sense of the terrible drives these stories, though they often end, for the reader, before the actual point of impact.
The linking theme of the collection is the Fenlands. The stories travel from Horncastle to Grantham to Sutton-on-Sea, and onwards, as if the author is creating an emotional map of the people who live within the uniform topography of these flats, from arsonists to fishermen, from tea-ladies to vicar's wives and a cast of defeated men. Place intrudes into people's lives, with sugar-beet crashing through windscreens, floods and the shadow of natural disaster. Sometimes the threat is more perceived than real, such as in "If It Keeps on Raining" which focuses on a man preparing for a flood by building a tree-house which will serve as a New Age Noah's ark.
In one unsettling story, a boy is being dragged out to sea by a current he cannot swim against, even as he denies this chilling reality to himself in "We Wave and Call". We are left dangling as the story ends, certain only of the fact that in McGregor's world, terrible things can happen to ordinary people. The collection's title is ironic, and it inverts the moral idea that only the wicked should suffer. Bad things, sad things, even macabre things, happen to the innocent and the good.
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