This as we all sat in the blazing sun, in the lee of the walled garden at Port Eliot Festival, and whilst I (generously I thought) handed around my Piz Buin Facial Factor 30 to a group of women around me who had come empty-handed and were about to frazzle. They fell on it gratefully, but that heat and the sun were to be in stark contrast to the darkness and mists of foreboding that permeate this book.
It should all have been enough to deter me as Wyl Menmuir proceeded to talk about 'being on the edge of things' and the 'dark uncomfortable' side of life, the 'insider versus the outsider' and the oppressive atmosphere that exists in the small seaboard fishing community that he has created. A community, Wyl Menmuir informed us, with an obvious nod to the Cornish dilemma of second homes owned by the moneyed that have priced out the locals who can no longer afford to live in their own villages or towns. However at no point does the book declare itself to be located in Cornwall, it is apparently a conglomeration of communities from across the country, but it oozes the tang of the sea, the clifftops and harbours none the less, along with that sense of the self-contained, sufficient-unto-itself community with the vastness of the ocean and limitless horizons beyond. The joy of the The Many for any reader is that it can be located wherever the imagination leads...it was Port Quin for me with its tragic tale of fishermen lost at sea and the wives left behind to mourn and survive alone.
As the story develops there dawns a slow and creeping realisation that The Many is a book set in the future, where fishing in a sea, contaminated beyond redemption, has been seriously curtailed and with the presence of a barrier of container ships set across the bay like the walls of a prison to enforce the restrictions. When 'incomer' Timothy Buchannan, a holiday returner, buys and starts to refurbish (for that read rip the heart out of) Perran's empty cottage then do those little but abiding moments of strangeness and animosity start to gather pace as the mysterious past starts to exert its presence. Perran has died in tragic circumstances; there will be lies and secrets and an unsayable shame and guilt for his fisherman friend Ethan that had me second-guessing ...and I am only on page thirty. Like nets full of holes the glimmers of understanding slip through, like those perfect fish that cannot be caught...only deformed dogfish have survived the contamination.
I was already engrossed and intrigued.
If it is possible to describe a book as being rich on spare detail then The Many is it, like a stock reduced to its very essence, and I suspect it was this lack of extraneous waffle and digression in the company of Wyl Menmuir's beguiling writing style that grabbed my attention and kept me wedded to this novel in the days immediately after Port Eliot festival.
Wyl Menmuir's essay in Elementum elaborates on a grief-stricken incident in his own life which has found its way into the book and that became clear towards an ending that seemed to offer no clear resolution and some uncertainty in my mind. However, having cited Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell among his inspirations, I kept faith with the author, read with the flow and to my surprise ended up embracing that wide-open interpretation with ease and much reading pleasure.
A book that exudes melancholy and a sense of foreboding often has the power to leave me miserable, yet somehow The Many captured my imagination in a good way and is still doing so. I keep thinking about it and reflecting on it and wondering.
There was a Man Booker year a while back when a raft of unknown authors were short-listed, exposed to the long knives of the critics and found wanting, whilst the judges were subjected to some ridicule. Judges can look after themselves and are paid to withstand the onslaught, but I felt very sorry for the authors thus exposed and wondered how damaging that experience might have been. It's always a risk and indeed, though I have read one harsh review of The Many that had me shaking my head in disagreement, others have been more generous and seem to have read the same book that I have....
Read Stephanie Cross here for far more coherent thoughts than mine.
So I really do hope Wyl Menmuir is thoroughly enjoying his well-deserved moment in the sun. He told us how, on Booker long list announcement day, and with no inkling that he might be in the running, he was having coffee with his grandmother when his mobile phone started bouncing off the table. Ignoring it in the interests of good manners it was some time before he realised that there was a call from a national newspaper asking rather sheepishly who he was, and one from his publisher telling him he had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and which he thought was a joke.
No pressure or anything but I can't wait to read what Wyl Menmuir will write next.