If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

h1 August 7th, 2006 by eisha

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

Listen – can I tell you about one of the most beautiful books written in this century so far? A better question is, can I actually convey the utter gorgeousness and brilliance of this book in this humble little blog post? Probably not, but here goes.

This languidly-paced, hauntingly lovely novel depicts a seemingly-average day in the not-very-distant past on a suburban English street, a day that the reader soon learns will culminate in tragedy. There are two distinct narrators: one is a poetic, third-person observer that drifts across lawns and through the row-house walls, describing in painstaking detail the thoughts, observations and actions of all the street’s inhabitants – almost never revealing anyone’s name, but rather identifying characters by their house number and/or a single physical characteristic, i.e. “the man with the scarred hands” or “the girl with short blonde hair and small square glasses.” The second narrator is the first-person, present-day voice of a young woman, a former resident of the street who witnessed the horrific event and is still scarred by it years later. By chance the woman connects with the twin brother of another former resident, and through him she finally learns the full extent of the tragedy.

The two alternating narratives work together to create a tension that belies the slow, dreamy tone. At first the lack of names or an obvious plot can be a little confusing – I actually drew a little diagram of the street to keep track of who and where everyone was. But as their individual stories unfold, several of the characters come sharply into focus. And as I came to know them more, the knowledge that something horrible was going to happen to at least one of them made me afraid to keep turning pages, even as the achingly beautiful poetry of the language made me want to savor every line. Here’s an example, from the man with the scarred hands (whose story, when you learn it, will break your heart):

He says you know in the place where you were born in, and he doesn’t say back home because he doesn’t want her to think like that but that is what he means, back home where they were a family and they belonged, he says in the place where you were born in there would be flocks of thousands of birds, gathering at dusk, and when they turned in mid-air the whole sky would go dark as though Allah was flipping the shutters closed for a second. And not any of those thousands collided he says, do you think this is special?

He says my daughter, and all the love he has is wrapped up in the tone of his voice when he says those two words, he says my daughter you must always look with both of your eyes and listen with both of your ears. He says this is a very big world and there are many many things you could miss if you are not careful. He says there are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are.

He says, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?

He looks at her and he knows she doesn’t understand, he doesn’t think she’ll even remember it to understand when she is older. But he tells her these things all the same, it is good to say them aloud, they are things people do not think and he wants to place them into the air.

And this is really the heart of what McGregor seems to want to say. People live next to each other, stand in line at the shop together, sometimes share a bed, day after day after day, and yet it’s so rare that they see beyond the most superficial details, so rare that they even bother to learn each others’ names. One of the central characters of the book calls himself an “archaeologist of the present,” and collects what others have thrown away, and constantly snaps Polaroid photos of seemingly insignificant things – his way of cataloging the moments that others never notice passing. McGregor does the same for his characters, revealing a widower’s unbearable sorrow in a single memory, a misfit’s loneliness in an almost-unused container of foot massage cream, an elderly couple’s devotion in everything they don’t say to each other. Like a magnifying glass, he concentrates a beam of light onto a single street, over a single day, and illuminates everything beautiful and terrible and meaningful about being human.

8 comments to “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor”

  1. Okay, folks. Eisha does NOT tend to speak in hyperbole, as I do, so she means it when she raves about this book, which she made me read, and it’s gorgeous. In an interview of him that I read, he said he was inspired to write it after the death of Princess Diana. All the media attention that garnered got him thinking about how we obsess over celebrities and know more about them than our own neighbors. This book really is great. Eisha chose a most excellent excerpt from it. Woo hoo!

  2. I’ve been wanting to read this book. Now I really want to! Thanks for the review…

  3. Oh, good! I hope you enjoy it. But if not, feel free to come back and refute me.

  4. Mindy, thanks for giving us the link to your site (click on her name, if interested in seeing it, folks). Your blog is great. Thanks for linking to our blog on your blog, too. One day maybe we’ll add a category of such blogs, ’cause, you know, we don’t have enough links on the right already. Hee hee. — jules

  5. […] Jules and I loved McGregor’s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, then read this.  Then go read it yourselves.  […]

  6. […] of these friends told me that she’s reading If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things based on my frequent ravings about it, and she loves it. Not just loves it, but she showed me that she’s only on […]

  7. i recently purchased this book used from amazon. it was actually a recommendation after they saw that i’d purchased/reviewed several haven kimmel books. i thought, it must be good if they’re referring to haven in the recommendation! i had no idea that 7 things had reviewed it, and after reading eisha’s comments above, i can’t WAIT to get home and begin. thanks, again, for a wonderfully useful review!

  8. […] one and would we be interested in reading it, why, we were most certainly intrigued. Eisha blogged here about his first book (2003), which she convinced me to read Way Back When (long before that blog […]

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact sevenimp_blaine@blaine.org. Thanks.