Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2016

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

the-manyI thought I wasn’t interested in this year’s Booker shortlist: it looked rather mundane to me.  But then I read Karen’s review of The Many at Booker Talk and became intrigued…

A novella of only 141 pages, The Many is a melancholy tale, suffused with grief, individual and collective.  Timothy Buchanan arrives in an isolated village in Cornwall after some kind of environmental catastrophe has devastated the local fishing industry.  Despite its setting on the wild Cornish coast, there is a strong sense of claustrophobia because the fishing grounds have been confined by a barrier of rusting container ships beyond which the fleet may not venture, though most of the fishermen have given up their boats and resigned themselves to a crusty idleness in the pub.  Those that do put out their boats usually return empty-handed or with a catch malformed by the chemicals that permeate the bay, a catch that must be sold in its entirety to the authorities, overseen by a faceless woman in grey.

The story unfolds through the perspective of Timothy, and Ethan, one of the few remaining fishermen and the only one prepared to give Timothy a cautious acquaintance.  Alternating third person narratives reveal that Timothy has bought (sight-unseen) the cottage of Perran, who drowned on the rocks ten years ago.  The whole village mourns him, and his derelict cottage had stood as a kind of grim memorial to an event which has scarred the collective memory of this close-knit community.  Timothy, escaping his own demons, has blundered into a hostile world which sees him as an interloper desecrating a sacred space.

The Many reminded me of the film The Wicker Man because it features a similar contrast between the closed community with its own hidden agenda to protect, and an outsider who has no comprehension of a world with its own laws and rituals.  Timothy’s plan is to renovate the cottage as a home for himself and his wife Lauren, but to the village he is an unwelcome ’emmet’, what we in Australia would call a ‘blow-in’.  But it is not just that he represents wealthy Londoners transforming the coast with their weekenders: he also represents the anonymous external world which has ruined their way of life by polluting the fishing grounds and by imposing bureaucratic controls on their industry.  And when he desecrates Perron’s cottage with new carpet and paint, he soon finds out that their hostility is very real indeed.

The Many is a thought-provoking book.  The use of the present tense establishes a sense of tension which links the subterranean truths of the village with the power of the restless sea encroaching on the village – because the ocean will not be confined behind a cordon of ships whatever the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture may say.  The physical environment is always threatening: on land and on sea it’s cold and it’s wet and above all, it’s unfamiliar to Timothy, who does not belong.  He gets no help to navigate his way around on board Ethan’s boat so that he stumbles and falls, and his explorations in the surrounding fields are perilous too:

There is a steep step down from the field level into the cave and he can see nothing beyond the patch of earth directly beneath the lintel stone, worn smooth and grassless. He steps towards the doorway in order to see further in and stands just shy of the shadow it casts.  Unable to see further, he lowers himself down into the darkness to see better what lies beyond.  He feels the cold rising up from the ground and he descends and it brings to mind a memory of lowering himself into the burning cold of the sea.  The floor is deeper than it had looked originally and when his feet touch the floor he is in the shadow, unable to see anything in front of him.  He edges forward, waiting for his eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness.  There is a rustling in front of him and two heavy bodies hurtle out of the darkness and Timothy is knocked back sharply onto the smooth floor.  Thin feet jab at his head and he raises his hands to protect his face, gripped by a panic that threatens to overwhelm him and he flails his legs and keeps his hands and arms up over his face and ears as the assault continues.  A heavy body lands on him and he struggles to breathe beneath its smothering weight, and the scrabbling resumes.  He feels something sharp connect with his mouth and there is a sudden pressure on his chest and then there is silence.  (p. 96)

Munmuir is very good at creating this level of suspense.   Timothy’s feverish dreams create a hallucinatory effect that contrast with his poignant memories of a stillborn child, and Ethan’s sense of unease about the risks he takes build to a crescendo as he seeks to find a way out of his entrapment.  As Karen noted in her review, this is not a book that resolves neatly into certainties, but that is what makes it so interesting.

Will it win the Booker?  I have no idea, but I’m glad it was shortlisted or I might have missed it!

Author: Wyl Munmuir
Title: The Many
Publisher: Salt Publishing 2016
ISBN: 9781784630485
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:The Many


Responses

  1. You did a far better job than I managed in terms of writing a coherent review.. I’m still puzzled by the episode of the stillborn son. I thought it was in the future but another blogger thought it was the catastrophe that took Timothy to the village

    • I was more bothered by Lauren, abandoned in London while he nurses his grief. She seems to have given his sojourn her blessing, and has made promises to join him, but my feeling is that a woman writer would have known that any Lauren would only have let him go because he is useless to her in her grief, and she knows that, and it’s probably fatal to their relationship…

      • That a good point. Women are a bit fringe in thIs novel generally.

  2. Your review intrigued me Lisa and your comments about books I’ve read often match my thoughts so I ordered this book and read it yesterday.I grew up in a small town on the north coast of Cornwall so I was expecting to enjoy the setting and I did. The writing, too. Everything else was a disappointment and I closed the book feeling frustrated and confused. The dream sequences became too much for me – some of these long passages didn’t seem to contribute anything more than the ones in previous chapters. I understand that the story hangs on the deep sense of loss and grief experienced by Timothy and Ethan, but a whole village? To respond as a reader to something so deliberately UN-told I needed a little more to work with, even to read it as completely allegorical. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter who Perran was and why his death controlled the village for 10 years but it seems so central to everything else that I felt rather abandoned by the author.

  3. Oh dear, I’m so sorry it was a disappointment … it is indeed a nebulous book full of ambiguities, and it took me a while to come to grips with it and it left me with some frustrations too…
    But, one thing I was comfortable with, was the idea of a place being traumatised. There was a recent murder here in central Melbourne, a city of nearly 4 million people, and I would say that the city was and maybe still is traumatised by it.
    I also think we often don’t realise how some aspects of our lives are affected by things elsewhere until something external threatens it. I bet most people in Britain don’t imagine that we in Australia feel uneasy about Brexit, but we do. Because of our close ties to the US, we are anxious about Trump. We have no say in these seismic shifts, but we are affected by them nonetheless. Maybe this was partly why I could relate to a small fishing village that was impacted by decisions made far away?

  4. A second read might be a good idea for me. Several reviewers have mentioned that was helpful. And I really did enjoy the writing – interesting in itself given my negative comments about the plot!


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