Jon McGregor is a writer whose books I have been meaning to read for a while as he is a local author to me and I also recently saw him in conversation with Jenn Ashworth at the Nottingham Literature Festival. So when I spotted shiny new editions of his books on a table in my local Waterstones, I ended up buying them all! The first I chose to read was So Many Ways To Begin, which was originally published in 2006.
‘He was going to start with a picture of his father. It seemed as good a way as any to begin.’
The focus in this story is a man named David Carter, a man who wishes for more. He is married to Eleanor but the marriage is not as happy as it used to be, and the arrival of their daughter Kate did not help bring them together as much as he had hoped. Alongside this, he wishes that his job as a museum curator lived up to the high hopes he had for it. In general David is going through a difficult time with his personal and professional life, and a revelation arrives which adds to David’s predicaments. A slip of the tongue from a family friend leaves him restless, leaving him with the knowledge that his life is not as it seems, and the life he has known may have been constructed around a lie. I was immediately intrigued to find out more about David’s history, as he begins his journey to find out more about his family, and about himself.
‘And this was the part of the story they would most want to hear, he thought. This was where they would quieten, and lean forward, and when he’d finished they’d say so that’s how it was. You know, I always wondered.’
David was fascinated with museums from an early age leading him to his career as a museum curator. His fascination with collecting various objects and exhibits is used here to tell different parts of his story. Each chapter is headed by a particular object, whether it be a document, photograph or item of clothing amongst numerous others. Through these the story is told episodically, with each item being significant to a particular time or place which is key to David’s family history and that of the world around him. As a result the story switches back and forth through time but I found the story easy to keep track of. I liked the use of the objects and it felt as though I myself was rummaging through a box of long lost items, gradually uncovering the secrets within. And with each chapter we learn more about the characters, and it provides a moving and honest glimpse at ordinary lives. I really enjoyed McGregor’s writing style and the way it beautifully portrayed the intricacies of daily life along with the complexity of human emotions. It isn’t just the story of one man, but one man and the family that surround him. It explores their relationships and how they change through time, how we adapt and how we discover who we are and where we belong, in those times when we feel like we are lost. I found David’s story to be an absorbing one, I enjoyed the gradual reveal of information and the piecing together of his history.
‘It was the not knowing, he would say to someone, much, much later. The not knowing was the hardest thing.’
So Many Ways To Begin is a wonderfully written story about what makes us who we are. It is a moving, intimate novel which provides insight into the lives of ordinary people, told through the significance of ordinary things.