A great pleasure of following the Man Booker Prize longlist is coming across books that I probably wouldn't encounter otherwise – including Menmuir’s debut novel “The Many”. It was a joy to plunge right into reading this without knowing anything about it and I was immediately struck by how atmospheric it is as the story is set in a strange fishing village. Life is hard in this murky, remote corner of the world and it’s becoming even harder. The bay seems to have been polluted because the fish caught in the sea appear disturbingly malformed and the only buyer of these hauls is a sinister woman dressed in grey who is accompanied by a couple of cronies. There is something deeply unsettling and strange going on in this village. The story goes somewhere completely unexpected which left me completely gripped and moved when reading the final quarter of the book.
“The Many” alternately follows two characters. For some time a dilapidated house has remained unoccupied – ever since the disappearance of its owner Perran who was a close familiar to many in the village. But a man named Timothy purchases this rundown dwelling intent on turning it into a home for him and his absent wife Lauren. He’s shunned and treated suspiciously by most of the guarded people in the village. Ethan, an unpopular fisherman and longtime inhabitant, struggles to find anyone to accompany him out into the water to help bring in his increasingly meagre catches. Although he refuses to answer Timothy’s insistent questions about Perran, the two become unlikely allies and fishing partners. But the mystery about Perran keeps swelling to the surface and the village is slowly flooding. Eventually everyone must confront the truth of what’s happening.
The accounts of Ethan and Timothy move freely between the present and past building tension and a deeper understanding of the action. As the novel progresses it also becomes increasingly hallucinatory as Timothy is plagued by insidious dreams and a ravaging illness. The line between what’s real and what’s not becomes blurred. It creates an effective sense of tension and psychological suspense along the lines of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” but passages where the men are out fishing in the gloom also invoke a feelings of intense meditation and a primal self-sufficiency similar to Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. I was slowly drawn into the novel’s bizarre climate of secrecy and impending doom. “The Many” is a brisk, impactful novel which poignantly portrays grief, solitude and an inhibited state of consciousness.