THE MANY by Wyl Menmuir

menmuir-the_manyThis compact debut novel came to my attention after it made it on to the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It tells the brooding and mysterious story of what happens when the pressures of water pollution and diminishing fish stocks take their toll on the men of a small fishing village. The story is told through the eyes of Ethan, one of the last remaining fishermen, and Timothy, and outsider who has bought the long-abandoned house that belonged to a man who died ten years before in unexplained circumstances. And who is unnamed woman checking up on them?

I submit this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

When he wakes, the stillness of the night unnerves him and leaves the bed just so he can hear the sound of his feet on the floor.

Ethan goes out on the ironically names Great Hope and each day comes back with nothing. Once there was a fleet of 13 boats but now there are only 4 and Ethan’s is the only one that goes every day. Then Timothy Buchannan arrives, and movies into the house previously owned by Perran. The place is almost derelict, unlived in since Perran’s death ten years before. The locals won’t discuss what happened to Perran, but it emerges that was a kind of mascot for the village and when he dies their fortunes started to fade too.

A profusion of biological agents and contaminants of how the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture described it …

It emerges that there has been some kind of spillage because the water has killed off most of the fish and mutated the few that remain, with large container ships marking the distance from the shore where the boats are allowed to fish. It’s as though if they fished further, the boats would bring the contamination with them … But one day Timothy goes out fishing with Ethan and he pushes him to go beyond the container ships and as a result they get a huge catch, which men from the government immediately buy up, overseen by a mysterious woman in a grey coat who regularly turns up to check on the village. But what is driving Timothy and why is his wife not with him? And why have they opted to move to this desolate place? And why are the villagers so hostile to Timothy? And who is the woman in the grey coat?

He has the feeling he is no longer on land and that the village itself is at sea.

Told entirely in the present tense (a difficult technique used well by the likes of William Wharton), we eventually have flashbacks that fill in some of the story, but ultimately the plot decides not to explain itself though it does end dramatically, with a death. Instead of standard narrative exposition (we never learn what the setting is for instance), what we are offered is a picture of grief and desolation in a stark environment that reminded me a bit of JG Ballard, though there is nothing here that might really be mistaken for SF. There are powerful symbols littered throughout and there is rather a strong whiff of magic realism. I’ll be very curious to see where Menmuir chooses to go after this intriguing and powerful tale that perhaps tries a little too hard not to explain itself but which delivers an almost tangible depiction of the human senses frayed and decayed, completely wrung out by their experiences. Not a cheery book in any sense, but a memorable one if you are in the right mood.

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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22 Responses to THE MANY by Wyl Menmuir

  1. Colin says:

    I can’t say I’m in the mood for something as heavy as this seems from reading your piece. Having said that, I’m interested in the book now and I can see myself trying this out, but at some point in the future and when my own mood is a little lighter.

  2. tracybham says:

    I don’t mind a depressing book, but I do like things to be explained somewhat. Present tense is usually but not always a problem for me. It is short so maybe I will try it someday. I was not aware of the book so thanks for introducing it to me.

  3. le0pard13 says:

    Fine book review, Sergio. Would you say this had a tinge of ’70s fatalism?

  4. Margot Kinberg says:

    It is indeed tricky to pull of a present-tense story, isn’t it, Sergio? What intrigues me about this one is the setting. It’s a pity it wasn’t explained more, because it sounds really atmospheric and brooding. I think I honestly prefer a little more explication in my books, but this does sound interesting. Thanks, as ever, for an excellent review.

  5. Sounds interesting in a not-interesting-to-me way. If you know what I mean… Good review.

  6. This is a writer and a book I’m unfamiliar with. The subject of tainted water is a hot topic over here with the debacle in Flint, Michigan.

  7. I’m in no mood for this sort of thing either, Sergio. Jeez, the way things are going in this country, I need to read only uplifting and humorous. Or as close to it as I can come. What a world. What a world. Thanks anyway, for introducing me to a new author.

    • I am honestly certain that Trump will never win Yvette, but it is Trumpism that is what is most dismaying – and that won’t just go away by November 9th of course. If you can, read lots of Edmund Crispin and the John Dickson Carr books he wrote as Carter Dickson – I think they’re often hilarious as well as clever. All the best chum 🙂

  8. Matt Paust says:

    I’m with Yvette on this one, Sergio. I love a good mystery, and this sounds like a series of mysteries within mysteries, but these days I need cheerier things. I say this after having just read a short story by Joyce Carol. Oates–Murder-Two–which is about as far from cheery as one can get. In fact I’m still recovering. Yet, something that’s on the Man Booker list is not exactly chopped liver.

    • Oates is a really good comparison Matt, thanks for that. I am reading rather a lot of gloomy fiction at present I’m afraid, so there may be at least one more off-topic post to come and then something humorous, I promise!

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