If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

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If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things By Jon McGregorThe opening chapter of ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things‘ invites us to listen to the sounds of a city at night. It is immediately apparent that this is an unusual book. This chapter is a kind of prose poem where we read about a song that ‘reaches out to a place inside you’ or ‘Acatchofbreathasgasometer-lungsbeginslowexhalations’. (That is exactly how that sentence is written.)

A narrator takes over in the second chapter, describing people’s actions and reactions at the time of what it transpires was a tragic event that took place in the street where she lived three years earlier. The details of what was happening in various houses along the street during the course of that particular day continue to be revealed throughout the novel, interwoven with a thread relating to life-changing events that are currently affecting the narrator.

As you read Jon McGregor’s first novel you feel almost as though you are a fly on the wall, settling for a few minutes and then moving on to the house next door or the one opposite. Hardly any names are mentioned in the book – the narrator can remember clearly what happened but admits to having forgotten people’s names. It does become a little confusing trying to remember exactly who ‘the woman at number nineteen’ or ‘the man in the attic flat at number twenty-one’ are, but perhaps this is a close reflection of many people’s lives in cities where neighbours don’t know each other’s names.

A good deal about the circumstances of the narrator is revealed as the novel progresses. It is quite surprising to me that a male writer has given such a convincing insight to what this young woman is going through. I was able to relate to her in many ways, not least as she tries to summon up the courage to telephone her mother or her closest friend to tell them that she is pregnant. She imagines the course that the conversation might take and simply cannot face it. Her description of her father, glued to television and videos, is very telling, yet a brief conversation she has with him whilst visiting her parents suddenly throws a whole new light on the reason why she has had such an unfulfilling relationship with her mother.

It is, as I have said, difficult to keep track of all the characters, but there are a few that are portrayed with considerable depth of feeling. We see an elderly couple going off on a bus to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and we learn that the man cannot bring himself to tell his wife that his health is deteriorating beyond repair. This thread of the novel is concerned with one particular day, but McGregor recounts the man’s memories of his service in Word War II: digging graves did not make him feel worthy of the medal he was awarded. Perhaps even more poignant is the description of a man with scarred, burnt hands who was unable to rescue his wife from a fire and is now left to look after their little girl on his own. The title of the book is actually a quote from a conversation that this man has with his daughter.

“I would happily read it again and would perhaps actually find a second reading just as worthwhile knowing what the outcome is.”

McGregor’s use of the present tense makes us feel as though we are seeing things as they happen, sometimes from more than one person’s perspective. I know that not everyone will have the patience for reading about the minutiae of ordinary people’s lives, and it did take me a little while to get fully absorbed by the book. We read about a young man bathing his eyes and scratching the back of his hand, or another man leaving a telephone message with the waste department of the local council. I believe the focus on unnamed people going about their daily lives is a comment on the fact that the media and the public are so often obsessed these days with celebrities, but it is difficult to say more about this without giving away too many details.

For me the ending is superbly written and wonderfully thought out. There is a gradual build up towards the tragedy that is referred to at the beginning of the book, so the reader knows all the way through that it is coming. I never guessed, however, what the exact nature of this event would be, and in fact the narrator did not discover the full details of it herself until three years later. It was to have more of an impact on her life than she realised at the time, and that would have been her reason for writing the book.

I decided to buy ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things‘ because I was attracted by the cover and the blurb, little knowing that it had been awarded the Betty Trask Prize and been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Having finished it, it is easy to see why. I would happily read it again and would perhaps actually find a second reading just as worthwhile knowing what the outcome is. It is a book for anyone interested in human beings and the intricacies of their actions and relationships. There is a smattering of bad language, but it is essentially an adult book.

Jon McGregor has since written a second novel entitled ‘So Many Ways to Begin‘, which I shall certainly be looking out for.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury, 2003
Paperback, 275 pages

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If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
by Jon McGregor

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Written by frangliz

I have a degree in Fine Art but never actually worked in that field. After almost two years in Paris, I moved to Cairo and spent many years there teaching English language and literature in schools. I came back to the UK in 1999 and now work with young children. I also tutor students of all ages in French, English or Maths. I enjoy writing reviews in my spare time; another hobby of mine is photography. I have two sons who are now grown up, both working in IT.

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