Review: The Many by Wyl Menmuir

  • Title: The Many
  • Author: Wyl Menmuir
  • Published: Salt, 2016
  • Length: 143pp
  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Special mentions: Longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize

Wyl Menmuir’s first novel, The Many, came out in 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The novel is set in a small fishing village, and it kicks off when a newcomer takes residence in a dead man’s house, disturbing the taciturn fishing community which is already struggling to thrive within a contaminated seascape.

The Many opens with Ethan’s observation that there is a new inhabitant in the abandoned home of late Perran, a fisherman whose death lingers on the fringes of the villagers’ communal consciousness. ‘A thin trail of smoke rises up from Perran’s’, the first line of the novel is an elicit invitation into the disturbance taking place in this unidentifiable fishing village. This elusive yet imminent call is how Menmuir hooks the reader in, suggesting that something is sparking out of control in the once quiet place where a dead man used to live.

The inhabitant is Timothy Buchannan. He moves down from London and begins renovating the old house, which had fallen into disrepair, ahead of his wife’s arrival. We get the sense that Lauren isn’t thrilled about the move, but Timothy is hopeful.

As the newcomer pushes through the waves of resistance, odd occurrences and fever dreams build tension and test the stability of Timothy’s mental state. No matter the lengths the fishermen go to, their labour is rewarded with the same result—empty holds or ‘wasted’ catches, which links to the reveal of the novel.

The plot is trivial, its importance diminished by the focus put on the themes, atmosphere, and brooding characters that populate the novel, albeit this is a common trope in literary fiction, which comments on the nature of human experience and doesn’t concern itself with getting from A to B.

One of the novel’s most evident themes is environmentalism and the rising toxicity levels of the sea, which disables the characters’ ability to make a living from fishing, and there is a sense of loss that soaks through the entire book, which begins inside the protagonist but extends to a community level. Although the major focus of the novel is not political, the context is relevant to today’s climate change debates, illustrating the destructive effect we have on our planet.

Menmuir is the architect of a deeply complex narrative structure. His characters aren’t just components of the story, they inhabit it within themselves and project it onto each other, dispersing the themes and breaking them down like sunlight in the depths of the sea. A great deal of craftsmanship went into the construction of this novel. The clues are buried deep within the narrative, which requires several readings to be able to unpick the thread which holds it together.

The next section of the review contains an in-depth analysis of the novel and major spoilers.

The main theme explored in The Many is the isolating experience of grief. The villagers mourn the loss of Perran, while Timothy mourns his own loss. There are also thematic cues of intrusion and rejection, mainly as a consequence of characters trying to break out of this isolation, and Menmuir uses imagery well to portray these themes. The villagers are unwilling to welcome Timothy, and the rejection goes beyond that:

“he can see no sign of life, no walkers with dogs or runners pounding the coast road, no couples nestling down into the beach out of eyesight of their parents, no doors or windows open in the houses between here and the bare hilltop above the village.”

The Many is encapsulated in a timeless, off-kilter seascape, isolated by a row of deteriorating shipping containers which limit the fishermen’s scope of finding a viable catch. This draws parallels to both Timothy and Ethan’s abilities to cope with loss and withstand the waves of grief that rattle through their emotional landscapes. They are limited in their reactions, often feeling trapped and claustrophobic, unable to escape the reality of loved ones’ passing.

As Timothy and Ethan begin to interact, they become more spectral to each other, their realities intertwining as Timothy’s state of mind declines even further, and when it is revealed that the two characters are mourning people who bare the same name, we begin to understand who these two characters are in relation to one another.

Menmuir uses Ethan’s character, and the rest of the village, as an extension of Timothy’s mind. The novel’s cast and setting are a projection of it, a physical manifestation of his inability to contain and cope with his grief. This is most evident in the third chapter, which is written from Ethan’s point of view, as he observes Timothy carrying out ‘the tattered contents of Perran’s house.’ In this scene, Timothy is trying to start anew by destroying the things that remind him of his loss. This scene also emphasises the reactions of those around Timothy, who “look past and above the pile […] and think they do so out of respect for him”, further strengthening the isolation he finds himself in when no one is able to relate to his suffering. In further observations, Ethan realises that Timothy is not in fact able to deal with the situation at all, being caught in the duality of his woe: “[He] has come to resurrect Perran. He has come to destroy Perran’s house, to erase his memory.”

The novel is written in present tense, illustrating a present mind, which begs the question: where is the story truly happening?

The whole setting of the novel is an elaborate reconstruction of Timothy’s inner state: the sea, tainted and wretched, is populated by contaminated fish from which Ethan and the other villagers are unable to prosper, meaning Timothy’s thoughts, although bearing a recognisable form, are not fit to sustain him in his recovery. The barrier of shipping containers represents the prison of his grieving subconscious, which Ethan would like to escape, and sees no reason why he should not be able to, though he resists and tries to find other things to focus on:

“a thought rises in him that he could break through the line of ships, that he could break one of the unspoken rules of the fleet. He suppresses the thought […] looking for shadows in the water.”

It’s as if he doesn’t give himself permission to escape, he feels freeing himself of this pain is ‘unruly’.

Ethan’s boat, The Great Hope, is the only vessel that could bring Timothy out of this state. Clem, the winchman, is the one who always reals them back in. Towards the end of the novel, Timothy and Clem have a confrontation about Perran, and the winchman asks Timothy a series of speculative questions which aim to make Perran ‘real’. Each question lands with a splash in the sea of Timothy’s mind, and it’s where Menmuir fleshes out the connective tissue between the setting and what it stands for: “Each one drops into the deep and makes its way down through forests of kelp to settle heavy on the sea floor.” The more Clem pushes with questions like “‘You want to feel proud? You want to feel he was okay, that he lived out a life he was happy with?’”, the more weight Timothy has to bear, and his desire, and inherently his inability to escape his own becomes more pronounced: “he wants to be far away from this village, out in the open space of the sea, though as he looks out that way, the line of container ships on the horizon stares back at him.”

Clem seems to be the part of Timothy’s mindset on revealing the truth, no matter how horrific and painful it is: “‘You will not know him. Not here and not ever’”, he explains. Clem offers Timothy an ultimatum—to take his questions and leave or remain alone with them, imprisoned forever in the desolate landscape of his own grief.

It is also important to note the lack of female representation, even that of Timothy’s wife. While she appears in conversations and in flashbacks, the essence of a feminine voice is completely lost in the waves of grief and isolation he is experiencing within himself. She is distant because trapped in his own mind, Timothy cannot relate to her or even begin to imagine what she must feel, think and need.

Even ‘the woman in grey’, a mysterious figure who arrives in the village to buy the spoiled catches, is not characteristically feminine. She feels sterile and out of place, an intruder who has come to expunge ‘the infection’. Her role is never truly revealed beyond that, though she remains present until the concluding pages of the novel, looking back at Timothy as she is about to leave the village, and perhaps she is an outside figure showing him that there is a way out, that he should go knowing things will be taken care of in his absence.

The Many is a superb piece of writing, a haunting and lingering exploration of loss and grief, and it is one to keep coming back to.

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