et Lean Fall Stand is unusual in the patience and precision of its engagement with a particular clinical disorder. The task of rendering dysfluent thought and speech must have been formidable. McGregor transliterates slurrings, half-words, and phonetic misfires, repeating the same few phrases while keeping emotion and atmosphere mobil... Lean Fall Stand doesn’t have the lyric force and structural patterning that gave Reservoir 13 such extraordinary rhythmic momentum. Nonetheless, it’s a novel of complex feeling and beautiful restraint from one of the finest writers around.
McGregor impeccably captures the thankless, sisyphean nature of a carer’s life: “She had to change the bedsheets in the morning because… She had to get down on her knees and… She had to ignore the phone because… She had to look at her emails and messages in the evenings once…” This bravura chorus of She Hads runs for two unbroken pages and exquisitely captures the endless torture of it. But soon the doggedly performative nature of his prose, ascetically choosing to reduce his remit to Anna’s actions, starts to fall short. Yes, he effortlessly evokes the unstinting grind, with each step forward often followed by two backwards, but a reader craves to be more than a GoPro clipped to a protagonist’s lapel. Quite simply, I wanted to know what it actually feels like for Anna – emails from her colleagues back-seating her at the big conference are not enough.
There is lots to admire in the writing: the novel’s opening section, set in the Antarctic peninsula, is taut and suspenseful; Robert’s impaired speech is artfully rendered. However, the story is somewhat one-dimensional. Apart from some existential musings on the inherent loneliness of Robert’s metier — his children had resented him for being away so much, and Anna almost left him — there is relatively little meat on these bones.
McGregor is a master of free indirect style. We last saw this on display in his magisterial novel Reservoir 13, which concerned the effect on a village of the disappearance of a teenage girl. Here there is a risk to the technique, as he tries to transmit the flow of Doc’s disordered thoughts. But while the narrative occasionally stutters, he largely pulls it off. McGregor is wise not to overdo the forays into Doc’s perspective, and allows the portrait of an estranged – though not entirely hopeless – marriage to unfold primarily through the gaze of Anna. He is also moving and convincing on aphasia itself. In the novel’s final section, Doc joins a self-help group for people with his condition, and we quickly come to understand each member’s peculiarities and elisions, their tics and workarounds, the incredible challenges they face to rebuild the language they have lost.
Given McGregor’s linguistic dexterity and the marvellous vitality of the first – Polar – part of the book, it falls sadly flat. Even so, one must admire the author’s often ingenious and persuasive renderings of the attempts of the sufferers to recover the use of meaningful speech. The first two parts of the novel are so good, and display such a range of imagination and sympathetic understanding, that one can easily forgive the banality of the last part and recognise that McGregor is a novelist of rare quality and accomplishment. He also leaves one wondering which is more terrible: to be caught in an Antarctic storm or deprived of the ability to speak.
Lean Fall Stand is, then, another McGregor novel that, beneath its serene surface, takes huge risks. There is, for example, the wilful front-loading of the action, with that stirring storm sequence giving way to Doc’s agonisingly slow recovery. McGregor has also chosen to have a main character unable to express himself for most of the book. Fortunately, it’s also another McGregor novel that triumphantly gets away with it — and for much the same reasons that Reservoir 13 did.
It’s a deft sleight of hand — to seduce readers with a spectacular action narrative before giving them an entirely different novel about how we communicate — but regular readers of McGregor will know that it’s the unsensational drama contained within the ordinary that interests him as a writer.
The shift in focus between the various group members is clumsy, and his depiction of Amira’s methods and concerns somewhat flat. Far more impressive is his recreation of the individual stroke victims’ speech patterns. McGregor’s great skill is to reveal the internal logic behind their apparent incoherence, as when Raymond, an electrician, attributes a scar to “Trick trick. Tricity, that’s right, yes,” and Mary, a racehorse trainer, names Shakespeare’s wife as “Annie and away we go to the wall to the wall”. Above all, this is a novel about language: how we fail it as much as it fails us.
Latest from the inimitable McGregor follows the stunning Reservoir 13, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year 2017 and Fiction Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, and is told in three parts, mirroring the title. "Lean" opens amid the throes of an Antarctic storm, the splintered narrative jumping between three men on an expedition: Thomas Myers, Luke Adebayo and Robert "Doc" Wright, the veteran in charge of the others. It becomes clear they have become separated, lost radio contact, and that things have gone terribly wrong.
Parts two and three, "Fall" and "Stand", explore the far-reaching consequences of the events on the ice. Robert's wife Anna is summoned by a phone call in the middle of the night to Chile, where Robert has been airlifted to hospital. He holds the answers to what happened, but has suffered a stroke and is unable to communicate. Back in England, professional Anna finds herself thrust into the role of carer, while Robert struggles to regain his speech.
McGregor covers new and startling territory with each novel and this is a powerful and profound account that manages to communicate how it might feel to lose language, to fail to find the words, but then to, slowly, painfully, recover them.