I began Lean Fall Stand hoping I’d experience again the inventiveness and lyricism I’d enjoyed in Jon McGregor’s previous novel Reservoir 13. His latest book turned out to be sublime: a tale of loss and survival that reveals both the power and the limitations of language.
Where Reservoir 13 explored the effects of a tragedy upon one community, Lean Fall Stand has a narrower perspective, focusing on one man whose life, and that of his wife, is changed by a catastrophic event on an Antarctic ice field.
Robert Wright is a seasoned Polar technician who’s spent most of his career providing support to visiting scientists and explorers. The rust red hut at Station X has become more familiar and attractive to him than his family home back in Cambridgeshire. Robert, known as “Doc” when on the base, considers himself to be the guardian of Station X and protective of the legacy of its previous inhabitants.
When the book opens he and two newbie researchers, Thomas Myers and Luke Adebayo, are in deep trouble. While taking photographs of the landscape, they were caught by a sudden snowstorm. Thomas is knocked to his knees and drifts helplessly on an ice floe through the Sound. Robert is left hanging perilously over the edge of a cliff Radio communications between them are hampered by the storm, turning the men’s desperate pleas for help into almost incomprehensible staccato.
Somehow Robert gets back to the hut but something is clearly not right. The normally clear-headed thinker and practical man is befuddled and disorientated.
He was the assistant. General. The technical general assistant. He was required to assist. He was required to take action. He had the experience required. He moved towards the radio. He went over on his weak right foot and hit the floor hard. He floored the numb faceness of his raw. No. Rawed the rub. The rum. The nub.
Part one of the novel — Lean — ends abruptly with Robert not at a loss for words but unable to make any sense from them.
What what wrong wrong. So low. Solo. So low. Noise. Wide noise like apple oars. Apple sauce. Appley saws. Appley laws. Apple oars
Part 2 — Fall — does a complete turn. The narrative now is told through the eyes of his wife Anna, summoned to Chile by news that Robert has suffered a stroke.
It’s left to Anna to deal with the aftermath; Robert’s physical weakness and lack of speech making him totally dependent on her. It’s not what she signed up for when they married. They’d led largely independent lives; he on lengthy rotations at Station X and she as an academic researching climate impacts.
But now, back home in England, she becomes his sole carer. It’s a full time commitment. Her children are no help, conveniently finding other more urgent things that need their attention. Support from social and health professionals is withdrawn after a few weeks. Anna’s employers keep pinging her with questions about her paper at an upcoming conference. It’s only Bridget, the widow of Robert’s best friend and colleague, who really understands what Anna is experiencing.
It’s not until Robert is offered a place at a group therapy session for asphasia sufferers that some glimmer of hope for the future emerges. This final section — Stand — which is told from the point of view of the group leader, shows Robert find a new language in which to explain what happened that day on the ice.
All three sections are skillfully depicted. Lean has the breathtaking drama of the storm. Stand captures the compassion and care of the therapist’s world while the repetitive language and sentence structure of Fall perfectly evoke the daily grind of a carer’s life with its constant round of feeding, dressing and cleaning.
She had to get some food into him before his blood sugar dropped too low. She had to leave him in the armchair while she went down to the kitchen, and she had to make him promise not to move. She had to listen out for any crashes or noises whilst she sliced an apple, and spread toast, and made tea. She had to ignore the phone while she ran the breakfast tray upstairs. She had to cut the toast into small pieces so he could eat it. She had to count out his tablets while he was eating, and tick them off. She had to carefully take the mug away from him when she heard him call out, and wipe the hot tea from his hand and his clothes. She had to tell him again to let her help with hot drinks. She had to ignore the angry expression on his face.
I didn’t care for the therapy group chapters initially. I was wary of the potential for it to be too “happy clappy” for my taste. i had a lot of sympathy with one of the group members who resists all attempts to get her to participate in the exercises.
But it grew on me or two reasons. One was that i discovered Jon McGregor had spent a lot of time with a group exactly like this so I felt confident his was an authentic portrayal of therapists and people whose strokes result in disrupted speech patterns and weakened limbs.
Secondly it was the compassion that overlay the scenes of group meetings. There are touches of humour but also poetry in the speech patterns of the group members as they explore strategies to cope with their conditions.
The limitations of language to explain an experience is a thread that connects every section of this novel. In the minutes after he was felled by the storm, Thomas reflects that it was nothing like he’d been told to expect:
His clothes felt as though they were being torn from his body, the air sucked from his lungs. He had heard this described as like being inside a jet engine. As though people knew what being inside a jet engine was like. People said these things, but the words didn’t always fit.
Robert’s inability to describe what happened at Station X are particularly problematic. He and Luke survived the storm but only Robert really knows why Thomas never came back. Questions from people at the research institute are met with garbled and inconsistent answers : “Sand. Leaf full sand. Huh. Loaf full sand” is how to tries to explain Thomas’ last known location.
We sense Robert’s frustration. He’s gone from being the person in charge, the one who tells everyone else how to survive in the Antarctic, to someone who’s no longer in control of even his own body. The ending doesn’t doesn’t seek to suggest that the old Robert will return, more than there is a new Robert, one who has found a way beyond words to build a bridge to a new future.
Lean Fall Stand is an exceptional novel, one that I’m astonished to find missing from the Booker Prize longlist. I hope that judges of other literary awards remedy that omission.