Last night I finished the final book I’ll manage to read before the Man Booker shortlist is announced Wednesday morning, and I loved it.
Whereas Reservoir 13 takes a distanced view of a village and slowly draws you into individual lives, community relationships, and the natural world, Solar Bonestakes one man’s life experiences and pans out to encompass the surrounding community. Both juxtapose quotidian events with large-scale change (especially environmental hazards and how we are changing our natural and built surroundings). The main characters are imperfect but humane and caring. Ordinary people turn out to be much more than their simple descriptions suggest.
That strikes me as about right. I loved both books, but Reservoir 13 might have a slight edge. A visiting girl disappears from a small village on New Year’s Eve, and McGregor follows the community through the next thirteen years. We catch glimpses of the characters, watch lovers come together and part, births and deaths, and the cycle of both natural and village life (so many lambing seasons, well-dressings, and Christmas pantomimes). Certain sentences repeat themselves, with slight variations, patterns a reader begins to look for.
McGregor’s style could seem artless at first; he simply sets events side by side, his sentences simple and declarative. But there is a selecting hand at work, of course. Some big events happen offstage, between our glimpses into people’s lives, and are felt only in their after-effects. Some you can only guess at. Here’s a passage I chose more or less at random. The man who rented a holiday cottage to the missing girl’s family is talking to the vicar:
We’ve not re-let that barn conversion yet. It doesn’t feel right. Maybe you should come and exorcise it. He said this with a laugh, as though he wanted her to think he was joking, and as she got out of the car she told him to know that he and his family were remembered in her prayers. He had no way of laughing that off. There was rain in the evening of the sort it was pleasant to be in for a while, taking the dust from the air and leaving an exaggerated smell of early summer. In the beech wood the fox cubs were moved away from their dens.
We want to say (or I want to say) that the human story matters most here, but how does this paragraph let us?
The effect of McGregor’s style and structure is a slowly gathering power. I began to care more and more for the people, all of them, but also for the foxes and badgers and butterflies, about whether the footbridge would be destroyed in the spring floods again or there would be quarrying up by the Stone Sisters.
I thought a lot about loneliness as I read this. Many of McGregor’s characters, as in the passage above, have trouble connecting and communicating, saying what they need and want. And yet some, despite the apparent distances between them (there are some rather odd marriages), share love and friendship, care for each other, take care of each other. What is intimacy, exactly? Reservoir 13 made me wonder.
My Personal Shortlist
I’ve now read 10 of the longlist books, and a bit of an 11th that I don’t intend to finish (866 pp., people!). I’ve got Arundhati Roy’s book beside me and Fiona Mozley’s in the mail, so I will finish the rest soon. It’s been fun seeing reviews from and having conversations with other readers. I read some really great books, most of which I wouldn’t have heard of, or wouldn’t have read, if not for the list. But please, if I say I’m going to read the whole list next year, someone stop me!
The Shadow (Wo)man Booker panel posted their shortlist today, and mine is quite similar:
- Autumn, by Ali Smith
- Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
- Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack
- Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie
- Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
- Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry
Where I disagree with the shadow panel ladies is on George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo, which I grew more critical of in retrospect. But it was also the first one I read, so maybe that’s unfair. I can see a case for it on the shortlist.
If pushed, this is more or less how I’d rank my list, but I’d be thrilled to see any of the first four win and not too disappointed if the others did. It’s still possible that one of the two remaining books could knock something off the list.
I liked so many of these books so much that I’m really excited for the announcement. Don’t mess it up, Real Man Booker panel!