"This is some small piece of where I began," says David Carter, the soulful and tortured protagonist of Jon McGregor's haunting and intimate So Many Ways to Begin. This quietly beautiful domestic drama is about the efforts of one man who has spent most of his adult life troubled by the ghost of
the mother he never knew.
The novel opens with a short preamble: Mary, a lonely young Irish girl, abandons her home in Donegal and travels to England to apprentice herself as a domestic on the eve of the Second World War. Invisible as only a servant can be, Mary keeps her head down and learns to go about her daily business "so that everyone could pretend you weren't even there."
She works hard at saving money to take back to her family, her days filled with a silent, passive routine. But it isnít always easy to stay invisible; Mary cannot help but catch the eye of her employer, and eventually she becomes pregnant. She ends up having the baby at a local London hospital then mysteriously vanishes, perhaps back to Ireland.
More central to the novel, however, is David's story. His has attempted to build a life for himself and his Scottish wife, Eleanor, in Coventry after his parents left London at the end of the war. As a child, David was an avid collector of bric-a-brac, spurred on by the fact that he never really knew much about his family, where he grew up, or what happened in the war.
Encouraged by Julia, a family friend who takes him to various museums, David develops an interest in history, "the same thrill of old stories made new." As an adult, he obtains employment as Curatorial Assistant Coventry's Municipal Art Gallery and Museum, where he immerses himself in the exhibitions, displays and detritus of the past, looking after these physical traces of history.
When Julia is hospitalized with Alzheimer's disease, she accidentally divulges a secret that devastates David's insular world. The story is simple enough: when Julia and David's mother, Dorothy, were working as nurses during the War, there was a girl
who had a baby she wasn't supposed to have. She gave the care of the baby to someone else, then she disappeared.
This realization catapults David into a situation that unravels all of his confidence and self-assurance.
As he struggles to cope with the realities of his past, he must also manage Eleanor's sudden depression, thrust into the role of shouldering his wife's disappointments over the failure of her academic hopes and dreams.
David soon learns that the real story about his past is far more complicated than anything he can gather together in a pair of photo albums and a scrapbook.
The need to know becomes an insatiable hunger; weeks and months go by when he can think of nothing else, can hear nothing else, except of course Julia's startling comment: "of course we never did see the poor girl again."
McGregor paints his protagonist as caught in an emotional dilemma, a type of damaged soul, with David's long-lost mother becoming representative of his joys and failures at life. Eleanor is on one side, Dorothy and his daughter, Kate, on the other;
the ghost of Mary is constantly there, unable to let go of him.
An undisputed Anglophile's delight and beautifully written, So Many Ways to Begin is about the small joys and tragedies of life, how our lives can so often be irrevocably changed, altered and moved by much smaller cues such as chance meetings and overheard conversations, often at a moment's notice.
David's world is ever being tainted and readjusted, always attuned to the course of things and new beginnings, just like all of our lives where "history is constantly being made by a million fractional moments too numerous to calibrate or observe or record."
This beautiful tale of dreams, love and disappointments is also a story of life's choices, exploring family dynamics and the often complex relationship that exists between mothers and sons, husbands and wives, even fathers and daughters.