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.
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.