Jon McGregor’s novel opens with a story of a young woman who travels from Ireland to London in the 1940s to go into service. Two years later, she secretly gives birth to a son who is immediately taken away from her, and she returns to Ireland, telling no one of her disgrace. Years later, a man named David Carter learns that his mother did not give birth to him. A nurse in a London hospital, the mother he’s always known took him in after his “Auntie Julia,” who was also a nurse, helped his young Irish birth mother through the birth and then counseled her about the best thing to do:
Sometimes he felt as though he had been there, sitting in his cot, studying the two women’s faces, wondering which way the conversation would go. But he hadn’t been there at all. He’d been off in some other ward, a numbered baby in a row of numbered babies, sleeping or stretching or wailing, waiting to be taken back to his mother. And these words became something like a treasured fragment of parchment script, studied over and over again, handled in a humidity-controlled room, learnt by heart. It didn’t matter that they were second-hand, third-hand, blurred by time and mistranslated, rubbed smoother and cleaner by his own retelling. These broken pieces were all he had; like keepsakes pulled from the ruins. Fragile traces, dug from the cold wet earth.
David is obsessed with the tangible remnants of history. For as long as he can remember, he has been obsessed with museums and longed to open a museum of his own in which everything would be on display and nothing hidden in storage. So learning that his own history is not what he thought is more than a little unsettling (as it would be for anyone, no doubt).
It seems like, with this premise, that this book would be all about memory and family secrets and all that, but at its core it’s simply the story of a life whose beginning is uncertain. The narrative conceit that underpins the novel is that David is imagining his own life story as he will tell it to his birth mother when he meets her. Each chapter begins with the name of a numbered artifact that represents a significant moment: Number 11 is a “cigarette holder, tortoiseshell, believed 1940s.” Number 43 is a “small fragment of metal, unidentified.” There are photographs, ticket stubs, postcards—and each item has a story.
The conceit is effective in that reveals something of David’s character without actually distracting readers from the story of David’s life. There’s a sense in all this cataloging that these items, these events are supposed to have meaning and that there’s a pattern behind them, but is that true? Or is it just what David wants to believe? When new relationships and new lives begin, there’s no way of seeing how they will end up. As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that it might not be the beginnings, or even the endings, that matter so much as the individual moments as they happen. The cataloging begins to look like a way of preserving those moments and making them always available to experience again—and perhaps even to be experienced by others.
One of the most striking things about this novel is how utterly ordinary most of the story is. Aside from the mystery of David’s past, the plot mostly deals with the typical events of a typical, somewhat sad life. David grows up, gets a job, meets a girl, has a daughter. There are struggles and moments of drama, but of an ordinary kind. What makes the story extraordinary is McGregor’s writing. He picks up on small details—sights, sounds, sensations—and puts the reader right there. See, for instance, this moment when David first meets his wife, Eleanor, who’s been struggling with the coffee machine at the museum tea shop where she works:
He walked up to the counter and she said what can I get you? Looks like the coffee’s a problem, he said, so I’ll have a tea if that’s alright. And she smiled again, blushing a little, and said aye they got the stupid thing on the cheap, it never works properly, and she went out to the kitchen to use the urn instead. She came back with a pot of tea, and poured out a cup, and glanced quickly up at him before pouring out another cup for herself. He stood across from her, his satchelful of guidebooks and leaflets propped against his feet, sipping from the thin china cup with the saucer in the palm of his hand. She leant across the counter and they talked. And there it was, already, in the way her long thin fingers fiddled with a sugar cube, in the way she held his eye when she spoke, in the way he wanted to reach across and tuck a stray wisp of hair back behind her ear.
The only other Jon McGregor novel I’ve read, Even the Dogs, had equally beautiful writing, although I thought the first-person plural voice in that novel was sometimes distracting. However, I admired it enough that I jumped at the chance at getting this, his earlier book, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. I liked Even the Dogs quite a lot, but the style was so poetic (and sometimes a trifle labored) that I wouldn’t have wanted it to be a bit longer than it was. The prose in So Many Ways to Begin flows much more naturally, and I enjoyed the novel much more unreservedly. I recommend it.