Jon McGregor’s debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002 and won both the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award in the following year. So Many Ways to Begin, his second novel, was on the Booker longlist in 2006 and last month his third book, Even the Dogs (which was published in 2010), won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
McGregor’s talent is formidable, his purpose is serious and his discipline is exemplary: this novel turns an unflinching gaze on its subject — a group of homeless drug addicts in a depressed Midlands town — and expects an equal commitment from the reader. ‘I wanted to write,’ McGregor has said, ‘without making concessions to how easy it was going to be to read — to people’s squeamishness.’ He has achieved his intention to write without compromise, but the greater test is the one he sets himself: to make that writing compelling.
The novel is constructed with meticulous care around the discovery of a man’s dead body on a cold day in the vacant, half-populated week which comes between Christmas and New Year. The death has gone unnoticed, the corpse is unclaimed and the authorities are left to process its efficient disposal. As the body makes its final journey (from flat, to morgue, to crematorium) its progress is observed by a group of invisible onlookers who provide both a commentary on the present and a narrative for the past.
Individual characters emerge from a collective voice to account for themselves and provide context and history for the dead man: we learn that his name was Robert, that he was a full-time, stay-at-home alcoholic, that his girlfriend had left him years before (along with their daughter) and that he lived alone but — in return for booze and company — kept an open house for local addicts, vagrants and drunks.
These characters are the narrators whose voices we hear; they are our guides to this windowless, desperate world. Their perspective becomes ours: no priority can exist beside addiction, and everything will be sacrificed for its sake.
‘So far, so familiar,’ you may be thinking and yes, lives lost to addiction are not new to literature; but the sustained focus of these narratives, and McGregor’s meticulous prose, give this telling exceptional impact. He uses the mystery of Robert’s death as if he were beginning a detective novel, raising the question ‘How does a man come to this?’ and then beckons us to follow him in search of answers. We are hooked by our own curiosity, captivated by the constant, flowing detail of the prose and then encouraged forward by a quality that glimmers through the book like a gold seam: fellowship.
However brilliant the writing this will always, necessarily, be a dark subject, and left to myself I might have faltered. But Dean Williamson, the reader of this audiobook, makes an inspiring and irresistible companion. He conjures a welcome, heartening vitality out of the text — a trick I never could have managed on my own — with only the slightest inflections of humour and tone, and without a trace of mannerism or ego. It is easy to admire this novel as an impressive accomplishment, but this fluent and compassionate reading made a huge contribution to what became for me a rewarding and memorable experience.