One success of the Man Booker longlist this year has been to throw up a few random choices, ignoring the established and safe choices for some intriguing titles. The Many is the debut novel (novella? at 141 pages this makes a welcome break from the lengthier tomes of last year’s list) from Wyl Menmuir, published by Salt, an independent publisher.
Set in an isolated fishing village in Cornwall, this is the story of two men. Ethan is a local man, still struggling to get over the death of fellow fisherman, Perran, a decade earlier. When Timothy, an incomer, arrives and buys Perran’s old cottage, the community is stirred up.
They lower their voices when Ethan is close by, he notices, out of respect, or awkwardness, he is not sure, but he hears the stories as they spread. Timothy has come to resurrect Perran. He has come to destroy Perran’s house, to erase his memory. He’s come because that’s what upcountry folk do, to replace the drudgery of the city with that of the coast. He has come to save them from themselves, or to hold up a mirror to them and they will see themselves reflected back in all their faults and backwardness. He has come to change them, to impose himself on them, to lead them or to fade into their shadows.
This is a book about loss and grief. It is unsettling in its strangeness, the sea becoming a metaphor for an absence of control. The fishermen take their boats out every day but usually return empty handed, or with fish that are half-dead and inedible. These fish are sold to a mysterious buyer, symbolised by two men in suits and a woman in a long grey coat who watch in silence as the unattractive catch is loaded up. The sea is heavily polluted, thwarting Timothy’s romantic hopes of swimming each morning after his run, and his dream of an idyllic hideaway quickly dies along with his hopes of ever being considered as anything other than a glorified tourist.
This is a village that has been cut off from its livelihood. Their designated fishing area contains nothing but the poisoned fish, and they are hemmed in by a row of container ships, quietly standing guard over the more lucrative waters beyond. The ships brought back memories of those menacing stones in Marianne Dreams (a brilliant children’s book if you haven’t read it), something in the quiet watching of the village though there appears to be no crew on any of them. Timothy eventually convinces Ethan to take him out on the boat one morning. His presence gives Ethan the courage to venture out past the ships for the first time, bringing in the first lucrative catch in years.
There are many questions to be answered throughout this book, the reader being drawn into the mystery of Perran’s death along with Timothy. But Timothy himself has secrets. Why is he alone at the cottage when he has a family? What is he trying to escape from? Why choose a village where he and his wife already had a terrible past experience? The present tense adds an urgency that is only somewhat slowed by the italicised passages of backstory, and the briefness of the book as a whole adds to the reader’s need to discover. This is a book that can be read in one sitting, preferably on a dark and gloomy day, though even on a sunny day I found myself drawn into this gothic, melancholy tale.
Interested in this year’s Man Booker longlist? I will be reviewing a number of books over the next couple of weeks so watch this space! Click below for my other reviews: