Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor review – beyond words

Disaster in the Antarctic necessitates heroism at home, in this beautifully restrained interrogation of language, care and loss

Jon McGregor has a quietly and brilliantly transformative way of mixing up genres. His 2017 novel Reservoir 13, winner of the Costa novel award and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize, began with news that a girl was missing. Search parties gathered; torchlight scoured a northern village. Even the title, with its sinister coolness, suggested that this book would follow the contours of a crime novel, and accordingly it was wise to be on the alert, paying heightened attention to each location, person and event. Gradually it became clear that we were not really there to solve the crime. All the watching and searching was failing to bring back Rebecca, but it was not without purpose. Each page, charged with intensity borrowed from the crime plot, was revealing the complex life of the village – its landscape and wildlife as well as human inhabitants – through the cycle of seasons and passing of years.

Lean Fall Stand moves into different territory entirely, but again McGregor pivots from one kind of story to another with profound effect. This new novel looks as though it’s going to be about an Antarctic expedition. It will doubtless be concerned with character and endurance under extreme pressure; struggling figures will cross the wilderness; sublimity and quotidian banter will tell upon each other. Partly that’s right; a storm strikes in the first pages and the ensuing battle for survival is narrated with riveting immediacy. But the second and third sections of this three-part book unfold far from the ice floes. Conditions remain challenging, endurance and discipline are required more than ever, but the work in hand is now the gruelling task of living with a brain injury and (for others on this most testing expedition) the task of caring for a man who has lost his powers of speech.

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