So Many Ways to Begin

by Jon McGregor

Bloomsbury, 352 pp., $23.95

Jon McGregor is an interesting young writer, graceful and sly. Calling his first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, he spoke of things remarkable, or remarkably enough, to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Now hinting at another kind of writerly uncertainty, he has called his second novel So Many Ways to Begin, making himself an easy target for a reviewer, plunging into his story like a race car driver, steering through its intricacies with a sure and steady hand.

A dual gunning of the engines gets this tale under way. It begins with a lyrical prologue, almost old-fashioned in its broad narrative sweep, following a tide of young Irish men and women out of their villages and off their farms, streaming into Dublin for the annual hiring fair. In the negotiations above the cobblestones we meet Mary Friel, headed across the Channel, and in London that same afternoon to take a job as a chambermaid.

Rich in visual detail but lacking in time frame, the account is swift and vivid, as Mary takes up her job in a wealthy household. On the floors between the servants' basement workspace and her attic room her aim is to be neither seen nor heard; but soon she is noticed, while setting the morning fire in the master bedroom, and drawn into the master's bed. Months later, she departs the house pregnant, and without her full wages, to find a hospital and give birth, then disappears.

David Carter is the child of that birth, and a middle-aged man as the story reopens, now firmly set in time and place. Married to an emotionally fragile woman named Eleanor, and the father of a grown daughter, David is already retired from the job that has defined his life, as a curator in a history museum in Coventry, devastated by German bombing in World War II.

And the author's interest, it turns out, is in more than one type of beginning, as he backsteps through David's childhood in an atmosphere of hardy and optimistic survivors settled in the city being reconstituted out of the postwar rubble. Dorothy and Albert Carter are the parents he knows, a young couple when they were drawn there, reaching for a prosperity once beyond their dreams in the promise of new housing and new jobs.

As important as his parents in these years is David's "Auntie" Julia, a resourceful and flamboyantly attractive woman and his mother's best friend during the war years, who is the first to encourage him in his propensity for collecting things, and feeds his appetite for history by introducing him to London's museums.

As David is nearing 22, and on the path to his curatorial career, Julia has begun to show signs of mental unraveling, and during a visit she lets slip the secret hidden for nearly two decades by her and Dorothy. As a hospital nurse during the war, when conditions made it plausible that an abandoned infant could have been her friend's, Julia had passed the child into Dorothy's hands.

In love by this time with Eleanor, the fragile young Scotswoman from Aberdeen, David marries with his sense of identity suddenly and quietly upended, but without acknowledging his discovery, and soon finds any thoughts of a quest to understand the nature of his true parentage entangled with Eleanor's unhappy struggle to bury the nature of hers.

At heart, this is the story of a loving marriage intimately observed, with moments of delicately wrought feeling sometimes wrenched in the direction of despair. But in a time span stretching from the deep-rooted tradition of the hiring fair into the aerial immediacy of the Internet age, David's parentage is not a device for soap opera so much as a poignant artifact marking a cultural shift. In the future, few children will reach adulthood as ignorant of their origins as David does.

In maturity, the boyish inclination once manifested in a tin box of childhood treasures still takes on the force of a preternatural survival mode, as if somehow anticipated in his DNA. Still at the center of David's preoccupations are a rock hammer, a nurse's watch fob, ticket stubs, pill bottles, a scarred photograph--the gathered-up items of a lifetime, slowly yielding their clues, not to his birth, at first, so much as to his life in the course of the quest.

Meanwhile, amid all the sensuous details of his charm-filled scenes, McGregor has a crafty way of planting major plot points with a few simple words, clean as a cachepot hiding in plain sight in the clutter of a Victorian room. At the start of his story, when David steps into a kitchen where Eleanor is baking, his tender feelings for her are so palpable amid the moist scent of spices and burnt sugar that it is almost possible to be diverted from the scene's most salient fact: He has returned home alone from the funeral of his wife's mother.

Time and again we glide through such scenes, sensing their full import just off to the edge, beyond our peripheral vision. But at the core of David's regard for Eleanor is something inert, even claustrophobic, so that following them through their marital ups and downs, we eventually lose interest in the ins and outs of their concerns. Eleanor's needs remain smothering without ever finding a voice; David's conscientious turning-away, because of his marriage, from early hopes and dreams, never leads him to surprising or more interesting depths. After a while, until rescue arrives in the form of a website map, he seems merely to have meandered off the main track.

Given so many ways this story might end, McGregor arrives eventually at a satisfying mix of irony and reality, nicely balancing the modest ambitions of his characters against the story's historical reach. In the hands of so appealing a writer, though, it is hard not to wish for the greater distance David might have traveled.

Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.

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