Jon McGregor has an extraordinary ability to articulate the unspoken through ethereal prose that observes ordinary lives from above without judging. While he is also skilful at depicting the particular, it is his overview of different lives running in parallel that is so bewitching, as if he is looking down on ants running around with their own urgent purposes, but each one minuscule in the scheme of the world. All his books have been treasures, capturing both the scramble of individual lives and the stillness of the universe and nature, impassive and immutable.
His latest novel centres around an Antarctic expedition, where catastrophe seeps into the tranquillity like blood on ice. The spare prose suits the icy, barren landscape. Doc, a seasoned expedition assistant, guides his two charges, postgrad geographers mapping out the territory. He is gruffly avuncular, but also proprietary and territorial, a stickler for the rules who exempts himself. Yet McGregor’s subtle depiction of personal foibles doesn’t mean we lack sympathy. Doc is simply a flawed human, like us.
McGregor’s intuitive grasp of semantics, from sounds to structure, and his knowledge that less is so often more, has always balanced his writing midway between prose and poetry. Rhythm is ever present: ‘Ice and snow and sea and sky. Glaciers and ridges and icebergs and scree. Weathering and windform and shear.’ Who would have thought that a list of words could so profoundly evoke the stark desolation? There is also power in the unconventionality of simple language: hypoglycaemia is perfectly summed up by ‘cottony and soft’; hypothermia by ‘woolly’. Timelessness is portrayed with Larkinesque grace: ‘The bodies came, and they went.’
When disaster strikes, McGregor shows rather than tells. Nominal dysphasia — difficulty in finding the correct word after a stroke — is strikingly exhibited from the sufferer’s viewpoint. And despite the bleak medical event, there is still wry humour, drily observed in sentences such as: ‘X had stopped talking for a while.’
As with many of McGregor’s novels, third-person narration switches between characters. This generally works well, though when it shifted from Doc’s wife to two therapists I felt the momentum was briefly broken. But this and a couple of medical points (a nurse wouldn’t ask a patient to pass urine immediately after a catheter is removed as the bladder would be empty; the term ‘subdural’ is not used for embolic stroke) can’t detract from the immersive magic.
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