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