Add to researchJon McGregor
Jon McGregor was born in Bermuda in 1976.
He moved with his family to England and spent his childhood in Norwich and Thetford, Norfolk, later studying at Bradford University for a degree in Media Technology and Production. He started writing seriously during his final year at University, contributing a series entitled 'Cinema 100' to the anthology Five Uneasy Pieces (Pulp Faction). He has had short fiction published by several magazines, including Granta magazine. He has been runner-up in the BBC National Short Story Competition twice, in 2010 and 2011.
He left Bradford for Sheffield, then Nottingham, taking a series of shift-jobs to support his writing, and wrote his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, in Nottingham, while living on a narrowboat. His novel has received much press attention, as he was the youngest contender and only first novelist on the longlist for the 2002 Man Booker Prize. The novel is set on an unnamed inner-city street on 'the last day of summer', and tells two parallel stories: one of the residents on the street on that day, ending in tragedy; one set a year later, telling of a former resident's attempts to unravel the facts of the tragedy. The Sunday Times named it a ' … triumphant prose-poem of ordinariness …', celebrating ' … the miraculousness of the everyday.' It went on to win the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award and to be shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best First Book) and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.
Jon McGregor's second novel, So Many Ways To Begin, was published in 2006 and his third, Even The Dogs, in 2010.
His first collection of short stories is This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You (2012), set in the Lincolnshire fens.
In 2010, Jon McGregor received an honorary doctorate from the University of Nottingham, and was made an honorary lecturer in their School of English Studies.
With only two novels to his name, Jon McGregor has already garnered a reputation for a quiet but lyrical narrative style, and for seeking out the surprises, the delights, and the beauty in the heart of the everyday world that surrounds us.
His debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002), employs a deliberately narrow focus. The action takes place on a single day, in a single street. The town, the street and many of the characters remain un-named, hinting at one of McGregor’s key themes for the book: the anonymity of modern urban relations, the way that people can live next door to each other for years without knowing anything about their neighbours. From early on, the reader is made aware that something out of the ordinary takes place on this particular day, and the increasingly ominous foreshadow of this unknown event hangs over the book as a wealth of conversations, actions, observations and unspoken thoughts unfolds. McGregor has spoken in interviews of how part of the book’s inspiration came from the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana, and the way in which other deaths which happened at the same time were overlooked.
The method chosen to tell the story is a stylised one. Narration is largely third-person, moving cinematically from house to house, seguing from one character and one story to another, as if a camera were literally tracking through the dividing walls. McGregor himself has referred to it as ‘a collage of snapshots’. Interspersed throughout, however, is the first-person voice of a young woman who has recently discovered she is pregnant, and who looks back at the events which took place on the day in question.
Just as McGregor demands some effort on the reader’s part to grapple with this nameless cast and fragmented narrative, so he plays with the expectations he himself has created. Even as the novel approaches its promised conclusion, the revelation of the book’s defining event appears to be no longer on steady ground. In a subtle shift of focus, the reader is left questioning whether the event which takes place in full view of the street, which we already know has an impact on the people who witnessed it, is more significant than something which happens afterwards, quietly and unobserved, but as a direct result. In keeping with the novel’s claim that ‘if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?’, the reader is left to conclude that what happens behind closed doors can be just as momentous and life-changing as what takes place in the public domain.
A subtle sense of counterpoint is also a notable feature of the book. The new life the pregnant girl is coming to terms with is balanced with the inevitability of death; and just as the possibility of one relationship is closed down, another opens up. A prevailing fascination with gossip and celebrity is poised against an undeniable sense of isolation and anonymity. And the blatancy of large events is contrasted with the minute, everyday, ordinary things which make up most people’s lives, and which most people fail to notice.
McGregor’s second novel, while continuing some of the themes and preoccupations of his first, deliberately treads different ground. So Many Ways to Begin (2006) focuses on a smaller group of characters, but with a much greater temporal sweep. Set for the most part in Coventry (a place McGregor chose because ‘the 20th century history of Coventry is a microcosm of the history of England’), the action of the book moves from the period of the First World War to the present day.
The novel’s central character, David Carter, is a museum curator who finds that his life has not turned out quite as he expected. Eleanor, the vivacious girl he married, with a bright career as a geologist ahead of her, has become a periodic depressive. His dreams of owning and running his own museum don’t look likely to come to pass. And his beloved Aunt Julia, slipping into dementia, reveals a secret about his life which throws him into turmoil, and sets him on an obsessive search for his own beginnings.
In less able hands this material could easily have become a rather tedious account of mid-life disappointment and disillusion, but McGregor’s fascination with the mysteries and beauties of the everyday lift it to a different level. Each chapter begins with a curatorial description of a domestic item – a scratched photograph, a tobacco tin, a nurse’s watch – from Carter’s personal collection. Sifting through these artefacts he strives to make sense of his own life’s direction, but is forced to conclude that ‘all the archives in the world weren’t enough when he didn’t know who, or what, he should be looking for and where he should be looking’.
The novel examines several different ‘beginnings’ – both of individual lives and of relationships. Unsurprisingly though, with McGregor’s strong sense of balance, it also focuses on endings (Julia’s slow descent into dementia, the deaths of David’s father and Eleanor’s mother). Finally, resting somewhere in-between, it becomes a quiet celebration of the triumph of continuation, of how things endure, despite the odds.
On one level there is nothing particularly unusual about the story McGregor tells. Plenty of people find that life is not what they thought it might be, and many wonder how things might have been different. Neither is it a page-turning, action-packed read. Rather, it is a slow, quiet book. But of course, that is the point. For, just as with his first novel, it is in the domestic realm of the commonplace that McGregor has staked his ground: observing and honouring the quiet delights, triumphs and wonders of the everyday. This novel celebrates the importance of love, of home, and of whatever life we choose to make for ourselves.
Susan Tranter, 2006
- This Isn't The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, Bloomsbury
- Even The Dogs, Bloomsbury
- So Many Ways To Begin, Bloomsbury
- If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Bloomsbury
- International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Even The Dogs, shortlist
- BBC National Short Story Award, runner-up; 'Wires'
- BBC National Short Story Award, runner-up; 'If It Keeps On Raining'
- Encore Award, So Many Ways To Begin, shortlist
- Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, shortlist
- Somerset Maugham Award, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
- Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best First Book), If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, shortlist
- British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, shortlist
- Betty Trask Prize, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things