So long ago that I can't remember exactly when, I read half of the stories in what was then Jon McGregor's latest collection entitled This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You. Phew, typing that title twice in as many minutes is quite enough, that's being shortened to TITSOTTHTSLY... no perhaps not. Anyway, I expect Jon McGregor has written two more collections and a novel since this one, but the book has sat by my desk all this time waiting for me to write about it, because there was a story in there that moved me beyond words.
Today is the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, and, with the recent publicity and new developments surrounding that tragedy, this particular story surfaced in my mind again.
This has to be the mark of a brilliant piece of writing surely... especially given my 'where-on-earth-have-I-parked-the car' memory these days. But there are some writers whose work does have that stickability for me and Jon McGregor is definitely one. As I read The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling, it was with real clarity that I recalled Jon's utterly devastating and convincing account of the life of a drug addict in Even the Dogs, and 'tis true. this literary recall may have been to J.K.R's detriment. Incidentally how well-deserved was Jon's McGregor's winning of the Impac prize for that novel
One of the cohesive factors to the stories in this collection (I will just call it 'this collection' I think) is their mapping of Norfolk, and though there is no title story the broader significance of the title is clear... these are the life events that could happen to any one of us. Those unpredictable, wrong-place-wrong-time moments of coincidence that culminate in something life-changing, an event that will shift the unsuspecting person's life on its axis, tip the equilibrium, to reveal the frailties and fragility that normality and routine can sometimes paper over quite effectively. Once the paper covering those stresses, anxieties and phobias rips just a little and the defences are breached, what lies beneath is exposed. Those are the glimpses that Jon McGregor offers, sometimes just for the briefest of moments, long enough for the reader to see plenty and more before they are papered over again and life carries on. As in Even the Dogs, these are the people who may become the unwanted, or marginalised... or who to the rest of the world seem to be constantly living off piste as they deal with grief and guilt, trauma and misunderstanding, and who so often the world may feel more comfortable leaving behind.
If you only read one short story a year, even if you read none, I would recommend you seek out If It Keeps On Raining - Susworth from this collection.
Why is the man living alone by the river, seemingly estranged from his family and building a fifty-foot tree house as insurance against a great flood that he is convinced will happen.
Could it be because he has witnessed a tragedy first hand, and one so terrible and that he was utterly helpless to prevent, a disaster that unfolded before his eyes. It has cost him his career, his marriage and his family... the sequalae to the tragedy barely hinted at, tantalising clues offered at a slant, yet crystal clear. Surely all a man can do at times like this is to be prepared for all eventualities, attempt to be in control, because life has already proved that disaster can strike once, just supposing it were to strike twice....and in this way he convinces himself of the rightness of his actions. Belt and braces are required because potential disaster now lurks everywhere, in every situation, just waiting to strike...surely everyone knows that.
This is the unsayable revealed as a supposition... via someone else's life, presented indirectly and deflected onto someone else, because to speak directly and personally would be far too painful. But be in no doubt, something has happened, a tragedy of huge proportions that has changed a life forever, and when the hint of that tragedy came suddenly I realised I was reading a brilliant and startlingly accurate account of the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the man ponders the life of the fisherman on the opposite bank of the river, I realised he was pondering and seeking justification for his own predicament...
'Maybe he got grounds of ill health out of someone. out of whoever he was working for. The police maybe...like mental distress for example, like if something were to happen... for example things you might witness or be part of.'
There is a double spaced paragraph break in the book here, reader thinking time well-used by me so that by the time I read the next paragraph I knew what I was reading about and who the man was...
'Like being in front of a crowd, and saying : 'Stop pushing there's enough room for everyone...'
I have just read the story again, however long after that first read and its power to grip and astonish remains just as strong, so though you may think I have given it away, trust me the punch will remain for you if you do read it.
Plus there are another thirty in this collection waiting to stun you just as much, and as I pick it up again I realise fifteen that I haven't read yet. The guilt that pervades In Winter The Sky, the loss that invades She Was Looking For This Coat, the way a reader's sympathies will twist and turn as they read Keeping Watch Over The Sheep, a story told from the self-deluded point of view of a perpetrator, one in possession of no insight.
In a way I can only only apologise for taking however long to write about Jon McGregor's glittering and accomplished collection, but in a way I am not sorry. Sometimes waiting and then picking a book up again and recognising its merits instantly can only serve to emphasise just how good it is, and why you might not want to miss it.
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