When Timothy Buchannan arrives in a small Cornish fishing village to do up an abandoned house for him and his wife Lauren to live in, it immediately upsets the equilibrium of the village. It forces the locals to think about the previous owner of the house – Perran, a man who had died ten years before. To the villagers, Perran had almost mythical status: he’d been a lucky charm for the fisherman, and as such they had purposefully left the house empty and abandoned as a mark of respect.
This is a village trapped in its own isolation and insularity. It is as isolated and as trapped a village as that of 19th century ross-shire crofters village depicted in the previous novel I read in the long-list, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s – His Bloody Project. It exists in its own, seemingly self contained, world. It’s borders are not merely of land but also of sea, and within the sea – now blockaded by a line of giant container ships on visible on the horizon, a marker for the point beyond which the village’s fleet are not supposed to fish. We learn that they first appeared around the time of Perran’s death.
Village life now revolves around the remaining fishermen making mostly unsuccessful trips to sea, and selling what catch they do land – however deformed – to a mysterious lady in grey from the ministry -“the department” – who arrives any time a catch is landed.
The Many is a minimalist tale, light on dialogue, which moves back and forth between the newomer Timothy and Ethan – one of the remaining fisherman. Fishing since he was 12, in charge of the Great Hope boat since 19. Ethan is harbouring deep guilt over the death of Perran. And yet, he and Timothy are drawn to one another. Both experience violent dreams of the sea, and there is a wonderful eeriness to the book, coupled with a creeping sense of dread and oppression which lingers never far from the surface as tensions rise between Timothy and the village.
It’s a book about loss (especially how we deal with loss), guilt, mythology, superstition. It is also clearly about the effects on small communities of fishing quotas, controlled finishing waters, and environmental pollution. Indeed there is a surprising amount going on beneath the surface of a book in which nothing much actually seems to happen.
Yet, I found myself totally griped. The kind of book where you end it still wanting answers and yet are unsure of the questions. It’s a wonderful book and the first book I’ve finished this year that I immediately wanted to read again.
Two books into the longlist and the standard is already incredibly high. Both this and His Bloody Project would be deserving of a short-list spot in most competitions, and I still have 11 books to read.
Next up: Ottessa Moshfegh – Eileen