Is it possible to enjoy a book and appreciate the skill that went into creation and yet finish it not being entirely convinced I understood everything that was contained within its pages? That was my experience with The Many by Wyl Menmuir, long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. It’s a slim novel but one that contains such a multiplicity of symbols and ideas that makes a second reading a necessity.
For a novel that has Gothic overtones, the beginning is appropriately an omen in the form of smoke seen rising from an abandoned clifftop dwelling. The house which overlooks the harbour of a small, unnamed fishing village in Cornwall has been empty for 10 years following the death of its owner, Perran, a man who it appears still casts a powerful influence over the village. Now the house has been bought by an outsider (an ’emmet’ in local parlance) and the villagers doubt he will last long. They’re not exactly welcoming to the stranger, perhaps seeing him as yet another city dweller buying homes along the coast as weekend cottages to the detriment of locals who can’t afford those prices.
The newcomer is Timothy Buchanan, a Londoner, who bought the derelict property sight unseen and now plans to make it habitable so his wife can join him. It’s a bizarre choice because the house is clearly in a very bad way, with stained curtains, peeling paint, no heating and the smell of dampness. Timothy doesn’t seem to have the means to pay workmen to get the house in order but he doesn’t have the skill or inclination to the do the work himself either. It’s not even as though this is an idyllic spot – an early morning swim on his first day in residence finds him fighting for breath at the unexpected icy temperature and the force of the waves. The following day he learns there is something even more sinister in the water. “If the tide doesn’t get you, the chems will. You want to stay healthy past forty, alive past fifty, you’ll remember to stay well out of the water, ” advises Ethan, one of the local fishermen.
The relationship between Ethan and Timothy develops over time though its not one that is easily fathomed. Ethan is still grieving for Perran, and suffering over what he could have done to prevent his death. Though he steadfastly refuses to answer Timothy’s pushy questions about what happened to the Perran, he thaws enough to invite the visitor onto his boat for a fishing trip and to break the cordon. The ‘chems’ are every present though in the form of heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted the fishing grounds and the villagers’ livelihoods. Instead of healthy specimens the nets catch malformed creatures:
The dogfish look burned, as though with acid, their eye sockets elongated and deep, showing through to the bone at the ends and there are white lesions down the side of each body. Their rough black skin is dull and flaked away in patches, the fins thin and ragged where there should be muscle …
A later expedition brings in fish that are:
… colourless and long, and their scales …. are translucent… Beneath the skin, the outlines of organs are visible, shadows in the pale flesh…. in some of them bunches of roe shine through the distended skin of their underbellies.
This is a community that is trapped, isolated and it seems on the verge of disaster. Large container ships loom on the horizon, forming a cordon beyond which the fishermen are ordered by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture not to sail. Nor can they sell their catches on the open market. Instead men in suits carrying large wads of cash are there to great them and take the stock every time the fleet arrives back in the harbour. Overseeing their transaction is a woman in a grey coat.
The woman in grey is just one of the unsettling and unexplained elements of this book. She never utters a word, she simply stands on the cliff like some spectral figure. Timothy initially thinks of her like a lighthouse beam that periodically illuminates the sea on a dark night. Later he comes to wonder if she is some kind of guardian angel watching over the village. The mystery woman becomes even more mysterious towards the end of the book when Timothy discovers her on her knees as if in prayer, tracing patterns on a road with her fingertips.
But by then Menmuir has built such a web of hallucinatory experiences that it’s not clear whether there really is a woman in grey or she is a figment of Timothy’s imagination, fuelled by a fever that bests him? Is it the aftermath of a traumatic event in his past or a traumatic event that might happen in the future? Does Ethan really see cracks appear suddenly in the protective harbour wall and run down the beach, early warning signs of a disaster to come that will wipe out not only the houses, but the villagers across whose faces and bodies he sees scars appear?
Questions abound within this novel. Reading it feels like being constantly on the edge of things, being allowed to peek in but denied access to the core of its meaning. One thing I was certain of, this is not a novel that has a happily resolved ending. Throughout the atmosphere is of impending doom not simply for this one village but for all communities dependent on natural resources for their living. Is Mynmuir giving us a taste of the future or of the present? Yet another of the unresolved questions buzzing around my head long after I got to the final page.
Author: The Many by Wyn Mynmuir
Published: 2016 by
My copy: I tried to buy this shortly after it was announced as a long listed title for the ManBooker prize 2016 but such was the low level of copies printed, that the publishers ran out of stock and need an emergency second print run. It was worth the wait however….
Other reviews: A number of bloggers have reviewed this in the run up to the announcement of the Booker Prize. Check out the following. If I missed anyone do let me know
There was no way I could read all 13 of the long listed titles for this year’s Man Booker Prize in the short time available until the shortlisting is announced on September 13. But I did want to get a flavour of the contenders so read a few of them and then a sample of the rest.
Here are my reactions….
Paul Beatty – The Sellout: described as a satire of post-racial America. I couldn’t get hold of a copy of this or a sample. But having read the review by Mookes and Gripes I’m glad because I doubt I would have appreciated it and probably not been able to finish it.
J.M. Coetzee – The Schooldays of Jesus: Coetzee is a two-times Booker winner so it’s no surprise to find he is being strongly tipped for the shortlist. This novel is a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. It’s set in a nameless country where everyone speaks Spanish and where refugees arrive on boats, are given new names and identities, and are “washed clean” of all their old memories and associations. The plot is rather thin – this is more a novel about ideas than a story. I’ve only just started reading it so it’s hard to give a verdict other than I find the narrative style irritating at times particularly so in the middle of dialogue where we get this clumsy construction of ‘He, Simon …’ repeatedly.
A.L. Kennedy – Serious Sweet : a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours. I read the first two chapters as a sample of this novel. By the end of the first chapter I decided I wasn’t interested enough to read on – it focuses on Jon Sigurdsson, a civil servant who seems to be going through an emotionally disturbed period. He’s in his garden early morning and is trying to free a bird trapped in some netting. The metaphor for his own situation is clumsy and over-blown. The second chapter where we meet Meg Williams, a bankrupt accountant is far more interesting. Will I read it? Probably not.
Deborah Levy – Hot Milk: another novel I sampled. It’s described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters but the first chapter seemed rather banal to me. The narrator Sofia is in a rented beach house in Spain where she is accompanying her mother who is seeking a cure for a mysterious illness that confines her to a wheelchair. Sofia is clearly dominated by her mother so escapes to the beach where she encounters Juan, the beach guard and has a boring conversation with him about jelly fish. Will I read any more of this one – absolutely not. Will it make the shortlist? It doesn’t deserve to but stranger things have happened with the Booker.
Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project: Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869. This is an odd choice for the judges, maybe not quite as highbrow literary as many of the choices in the past. The chapters I’ve dipped into have been fast paced and chock full of atmosphere. I have an electronic copy that I snaffled up as a bargain the day after the long-listing so yes, this is one I plan to read. Sometime. I don’t see it making the final list however.
Ian McGuire – The North Water: a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic. This was the second of the Booker list I read and what a scorcher it proved to be. A page turner but one that has more literary merit than most page turning novels. It might make the shortlist – a short while ago it was a favourite with the bookies. But if it makes it to the ultimate prize then I promise to go and read Moby Dick as a penance.
David Means – Hystopia: the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and there is a government initiative to wipe the trauma from the memories of returning soldiers.I read a sample of this and was thoroughly confused. It has multiple editor notes as the preface which supposedly explains the story but I ended up more confused and felt it was just trying to be too darn clever for its own good. Many blogger reviews I’ve seen since then all indicate that the confusion doesn’t go away the further you read. I don’t mind being challenged by a book – its the easy novels that frustrate me – but when someone is just trying to show off their ability and they forget they have a reader, I get annoyed. So no I will not be reading this one. I suspect it will make the shortlist though just because the Booker judges do like novels that try to be be inventive.
Wyl Menmuir –The Many: this a short novel that punches above the weight of its page count. It tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish village whose future is threatened by pollution of their fishing grounds. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. It took me a while to get hold of a copy because the novel is published by Salt who had only printed 1,000 copies and were overwhelmed by demand when The Many got long listed. But oh boy was this worth the wait. It’s atmospheric in a chilling sense because we don’t get to know why the fishing waters are polluted and there is some mystery about the previous occupant of the house. Will it make the shortlist – it deserves a place I think.
Ottessa Moshfegh– Eileen: set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter. The sample I read did intrigue me – it is a first person narration by Eileen who is living a pretty miserable life with her alcoholic father in a squalid home. Her only escapes are the trips she takes in her battered down car to the liquor store and her work at at a correctional facility for boys. I’ve seen mixed reactions to this novel but it might be one that I’m interested to read more about. Whether it makes the shortlist I have no idea, not having read enough of it to judge.
Virginia Reeves – Work Like Any Other: Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines. I don’t know what it is about the synopsis for this book but it didn’t encourage me to even get a sample…….
Elizabeth Strout – My Name Is Lucy Barton: a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here. Will it make it to the next round? Maybe.
David Szalay – All That Man Is: This is an odd novel. Actually I’m not even sure that I can call it a novel though that’s the description used by the publishers. It felt to me a collection of stories about nine different men, all at various stages of their lives. There is only one really clear connection between them – and that’s between the young man in story number one and the old man in the final story who turns out to be his grandfather. Some of these pieces have appeared either in full or partially in either Granta or the Paris Review which makes me think that rather than conceived holistically from the start, the author is trying to make connections between each character in retrospect. Not one I expect to see on the shortlist even if Szalay has been named previously as a Granta Best Young British Novelist.
Madeleine Thien – Do Not Say We Have Nothing: relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution. Another case where I had to rely upon a sample since it’s not available through the library system or NetGalley and I refuse to shed out a lot of money on hard cover fiction even though I am a sucker for novels that pull back the curtain on Chinese culture. The first chapter introduces us to the narrator Li-ling lives with her mother in Vancouver. Her father disappeared some years earlier, and subsequently committed suicide. His wife keeps all his papers in boxes under the kitchen table which she pores over to try and make sense of what happened to him. The arrival into the Vancouver apartment of a teenage relative forced to flee China following the suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprising, enables Li-ling to assemble the story of her father and his profound but troubled relationship with his wife’s family. What I’ve read was enough to whet my appetite to this is going onto the wishlist for when I can find a reasonably priced copy. Will it get shortlisted – maybe….
Other bloggers have been far more diligent than I have in reading the longlist so do go and check out their reviews.