Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

Salt Publishing, 2016
141 pp


The Many is an example of why I am a champion of novels from smaller, independent publishers. I had noted this title while looking at Salt's webpage some time back, thinking it looked intriguing, and then it shows up on this year's Booker Prize longlist. Not that I plan to read every novel on that list, but this one had initially caught my eye because it seemed like the kind of dark, intense read that would appeal.  And as it turns out, my hunch was right.  Even though this novel has its naysayers, I liked it.

The truth is though, that it took me two readings before I felt like I was getting somewhere with this novel. To be really honest, while the story compelled me to keep turning pages the first time,  it wasn't until the ending when I did a double take and realized a) that all is not as it seems on the surface here and b) I absolutely needed to read it again.  The result was an even sadder and more disturbing story the second time through, and it was well worth the time I put into it, one that's still haunting me right now while I'm thinking about it. Very few books can really do that to me, and this is one of them.

Just a little re plot, but not much.  An old, abandoned house overlooks the sea, a house that has stood empty for years.  Now an "incomer" by the name of Timothy Bucchanan has come to occupy it, thinking to fix it up as a place for himself and his wife Lauren (who is not there with him at the time and who will come when the house is ready), but his arrival is not a particularly welcome one among the others who live in this small, isolated coastal village.  Most profoundly affected by Timothy's arrival is Ethan, who is the first to notice chimney smoke rising from the house.  It seems that the place formerly belonged to Perran, who died many years ago; the house has since remained just the way it was when Perran died, sort of frozen in time.  Ethan and the men in the village are fishermen, but their way of life has been seriously curtailed, with fishing limited to an area delineated by the coastline and a "line of stationary container ships," due to "a profusion of biological agents and contaminants" poisoning the waters. The damage to the environment yields damaged fish, and yet there's always someone there to pay for and to take away the catch.  As Timothy works to try to put the house into some sort of order, questions arise regarding the former occupant, about whom everyone seems reluctant to speak. The question is why, of course, and trying to uncover answers is part and parcel of this novel.

In trying to deal with the house (which is still known locally as "Perran's house"), Timothy has times when it seems he may have taken on a bigger job than he can actually handle.  On his first morning in the house, he "wanders from room to room," discovering "huge shadows of stains on the walls and ceilings." His first thought as he looks around for fuel for the fireplace  is that the "house is a mistake," and then while looking out the window, he
"draws his fingers the length of the window frame and feels flecks of paint peel off beneath his fingertips. There is a thin line or crack, barely perceptible, that runs up through the window and he adds it to his mental list of things he needs to fix." 
The second time through, taking things much slower this time, it was here that my thinking skills  started kicking in, drawing me toward the ideas of deterioration and damage that seem to be common threads in this book.  Of course, what I read into it may not be at all what the author intended, but well, considering how very enigmatic this book is, my interpretation is probably just one among many.

 The Many is definitely a cryptic novel which can be extremely frustrating, and given its size,  it probably shouldn't take two readings for most people.  In my case, the second read helped a lot, since there is not much that is said here by way of explanation, and there is much that a reader has to pick up through an examination of dreams and flashbacks and through drawing parallels.  I often felt like the characters in this book -- "hemmed in", since there's a tense, claustrophobic feel to this story.  It also had the effect of keeping me knocked off kilter the entire time.  In spite of the fact that it was so enigmatic (and really, some of it is just plain strange at times), I found it a dark, sad and eerie book that I won't be forgetting any time soon. That's a good thing.

Recommended for very patient readers.

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