A prizewinning first novel from England is an impressionist portrait of neighbors on one city block.
Listen, coos the narrator, listen, with a faint echo, at the start, of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Thomas was evoking a Welsh village, while McGregor is summoning the nightsounds of an English city. It’s summertime. There’s a street of row houses. Neighbors are running errands, hanging out, doing chores. Then something terrible happens, and the neighbors share the horror, transfixed; the event is not described until the end. Small kids improvise a cricket game with a milk crate; older hip kids return from all-night clubbing to smoke weed. A lonely archaeology student collects sidewalk odds and ends (“urban archiving”). A man with ruined hands listens respectfully to his daughter’s visions of angels. An old couple step out jauntily to celebrate their 55th anniversary. With the neighbors as a backdrop, the spotlight turns to a character we’ll call The Girl. She’s just learned she is pregnant, the result of a marvelous one-night-stand in Scotland. She met the student only once, too, at a party, when she was high; they arranged a date that she forgot, though the student never forgot her. His twin brother shows up and drives The Girl to her parents. As she reveals the secret of her pregnancy, she learns her mother’s own well-kept secret. Secrets are legion on the block. The old man has not told his wife he’s terminally ill, and Michael has yet to tell The Girl the secret of his brother’s disappearance. Delicate little clues tell us that some of the neighbors are from the subcontinent, but color and ethnicity aren’t important here; the “remarkable things” of the title are the small moments of the here-and-now that rival angelic visions. Those are what McGregor is celebrating.
The halting conversations are overdone, and that street horror is problematic, but 26-year-old McGregor’s sharp eye and broad sympathies show a true novelistic sensibility and a sizable talent.