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This is one of the most unusually written books I have read for a long time. The writing is almost poetic, and very descriptive as far as actions are concerned.
The book is set in the late nineties, on a street in a northern English town. There are two sides to the story, told alternately throughout the book. First is an unnamed protagonist: a young woman with an unexpected pregnancy, still traumatised about an event she witnessed on the street in her university town back in the nineties. We don't know her name but we see a bit of her back story, as she meets up with the brother of one of her former neighbours.
The other side is the events that happened one day, on the street in the Northern town, where our protagonist from the other part of the story was a student getting ready to head back home. Here we meet other residents of the street, fairly superficially, we don't know their names and we have a very vague physical description - 'the boy in the tie', the daughter of the man with the scarred hands', 'the man in the attic flat of number 20' etc - but we know what they are doing. At first this is frustrating - trying to remember who was who - but actually think it is typical of many streets or apartment black - we see people all the time and exchange greetings, but we don't always know their names.
This is my first novel by Jon McGregor, and I loved his writing style. I usually get frustrated with overly descriptive passages, that seem to pad the book and make you lose the story. Here he is describing the detail of what you see, but don't always notice when you spot your neighbour washing his car, or the out of context conversational snippets you here as someone passes by. I thought it very cleverly done, and by the time we reached the key event that they all saw, I'm hooked.
If I had a criticism it was the ambiguity of the ending, but again that is reflective of our modern lifestyles - we don't always know what happens to our neighbours. They may have moved but the circumstances aren't always known to you, so we are left to make our own assumptions.
I was made aware of this book by my tutor at Uni, we always have a brief discussion about what we are reading at the moment and she said that this book was just fantastic.
I found my copy on Play.com for £2.49 (inc P&P - bargain!) RRP £6.99, widely available in bookshops & websites, Amazon etc.
Published by Bloomsbury in 2002, this debut novel went on to win the Betty Trask Prize in 2003 and the 2004 Somerset Maugham Award. This wonderful observation of life as we know it put Jon McGregor on the literary map. The receipt of praise from world renound critics really substantiate the quality within this novel, it really is an outstanding read.
Set in an everyday street in Yorkshire, the entire novel is based around one day in the lives of each inhabitant. The author takes you to each person in each house describing them down to the most minute detail. He splits the story between prose sections of each characters' history and short snippets of what they are doing on this one day, at that particular moment. The reader gets to know each person as if they were a part of your own life, or a well known character from a television soap-opera, you actually feel as though you are spying on people.
Tension is created as we know from the start of the story that on this particular day, an event is going to occur that will affect everybody on the street. We know it's not a nice event and suspense is created from the first few pages (no, I'm not telling..:-))
McGregor uses poetic language throughout the story, it's almost as if the story is being sung to you in places. I have never read a book that has this quality, I really took to it. I couldn't put this book down, I wanted to know what happened to everybody on that day.
The characters are people you can relate to, everyone will know someone on that street, be it the old couple, the young party goers, anyone. The way the lives of these people are explored, their feelings and interactions with other characters is so in depth, it's emotive and thought provoking. You find yourself wanting to speak with the characters, shout 'No, don't do it!' in places.
This is a story that will captivate and involve you. If you enjoy reading and long to be lost in a story that isn't your own then have a look at this book. You won't be let down.
This is one of those books that stays with you. You get to the end and have to sit a while and mull it over. It's a bit like at the cinema- you can tell it's been a good film when people linger a bit before they get up to go home.
This book stays with me, but I always have a hard time telling anyone what it's about, because it's not really about that much, except it's about everything, everything we go through in the course of our normal mundane little lives.
It's a book without a huge plot, but with a huge impact. It gives you the sense that you're peeking inside the quiet thoughts of people who are going through the motions of their lives, fearful, tearful, in love, in pain, excited, confused.... the whole gamut of human emotion is expressed with a quiet understated beauty that makes the novel read like a long poem.
We are given tiny glimpses of the lives of people living in a street, and things are rarely explained or elaborated on. However, though this might sound frustrating or pointless, in fact the opposite is true, this fascinating book highlights just how little we need to know about each other to be moved by each other. It shows us just how much we can empathise/ sympathise with people we know so little about, and how our lives can be strangely and tenuously intermingled.
It is indeed quietly remarkable.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is an amazing book that looks into the lives of odinary people but with such a deep and provoking prose.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is about the actions of charcters in one small town in one day, the characters and the town remains anoymous and we just circle around these people's lives. Perhaps circle isn't the right word to use you get into it but not too deep, just about as close as if you were watching from a window. A serious event happens in this little town and we're never told what it is but you can suspect. We see the story through two people, one who is in the present and is seeing the event unfold in front of them and there's another person who recalls the day of the accident 3 years on.
I doubt the story itself would ever work if it wasn't for McGregor's style and the way he manage to capture you and turn this ordinary town into something slightly magical and mystical. The way each sentence is written and the way things are phrases just seems so elegant, every part of the story seems to just roll right off your tongue and you can read everything with ease. McGregor takes a snapshot of all these people's lives and with the unique description we really feel a story behind this ordinary and simply people. Yet in the story these ordinary and simple people matter and the story makes you realise that all these little things we do and see do matter. Throughout the story w're lead to believe that something huge is going to happen and yes something does happen but not so much that you are shocked in fact you are left reflecting on the lives of the character and all the little things they do that change their lives.
McGregor shows us that the little things in life are remarkable and perhaps we need to speak of them or at least write them down because they do alter lives. This novel is compltely refreshing and I'm glad I was able to be persudaded by the peopel at Waterstones to purchase it as I came across it on a whim. How the story is told is what makes this book special and enthralling without McGregor's touch this would have fell flat and considering I've never read anything like this I am impressed.
The 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 'Acatchofbreathasgasometerlungsbeginslowexhalations'. (That is exactly how that sentence is written.)
In the second chapter a narrator takes over, 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.
Reading Jon McGregor's first novel is almost like being 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.
We do get to learn a good deal about the circumstances of the narrator. 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.
Although I have said that it is difficult to keep track of all the characters, 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.
The novel is written in the present tense 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 bsck 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.
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 borrowed 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things' from the library, 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
Paperback, 275 pages
£7.99 (Amazon £5.99)
Also published on Ciao UK under my username denella.