The Many by Wyl Menmuir review — ‘an intriguing, formally ambitious debut’

A newcomer to a Cornish village finds he is a fish out of water in this Man Booker-longlisted novel

Salt, a small press based in Cambridgeshire, should be congratulated again on its success at debuting interesting British writers, and on this, its second Man Booker Prize listing after Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse was shortlisted in 2012. Wyl Menmuir’s The Many, longlisted for this year’s prize, begins with a familiar plot device: a man arriving in a strange town. Timothy Buchanan is what the inhabitants of this Cornish fishing village call “an Emmet” — an interloper — who has arrived at a place that has fallen on hard times since pollution killed or deformed most of the fish in its bay.

Timothy is a young man ready to start a family away from London, planning to do up a house in preparation for the arrival of his wife. His intrusion in the local community is exacerbated by the fact the house once belonged to Perran, a local fisherman, and has stood empty for 10 years since Perran drowned at sea. The secretive and superstitious locals understand the rules Timothy cannot yet grasp: “Sure as not setting sail on Friday is a rule, sure as talking low when you spot a petrel close by is a rule, sure as not moving into Perran’s is a rule.” The novel alternates between the perspectives of Timothy and a fisherman called Ethan, as Timothy’s arrival unearths Ethan’s buried grief and guilt about his friend Perran’s death.

So far the reader might be expecting a novel of social realism — an exploration of a micro-community struggling with modernity. But the novel is fishier than this and quickly gets weird.

The landscape is more gothic than realistic: the bay is bordered by rusting and deserted container ships marking a boundary beyond which the fishing boats must not pass. When the fishermen make a rare good haul — albeit of diseased dogfish — a shadowy buyer arrives to purchase the catch in its entirety. Perhaps the reader can expect a sort of eco-conspiracy thriller . . . 

It’s a difficult novel to review without giving the game away, as Menmuir places constant red (or luminous green) herrings in the path of the reader — raising expectations and subverting them. When the novel reveals its final, ambiguous twist, casting doubt over the veracity of event, character and setting, many readers may decide the author has been guilty of overfishing.

The grief the novel describes is somewhat self-indulgent, a grief which, in being forced to fit an extended metaphor, has its emotional truth distorted. The novel mostly eschews character, dialogue, and any strong female perspective. Nevertheless, this is to a purpose, and it’s an intriguing, evocative and formally ambitious debut. We’re in the present tense, with its precise declarative monotony well suited to describing characters imprisoned by their own routines, while italicised flashbacks are well-handled interruptions to these repetitions.

The novel might have trusted its ability to convey the weight of the unconscious in this way, but there are also many dream sequences, chapters that end with going to sleep and begin with waking up. This brought to mind another writer of the wake-up opening, the great navigator of dream logic, Franz Kafka. Dreams are notoriously difficult to make interesting in fictional landscape, something The Many struggles with, as we are presented with lengthy dreams filled with desolate seascape, insubstantial repetitions of the main material of the novel.

And although the elision of physical and mental landscape is mostly successful, the reader may hanker for more irony and less portent when reading sentences such as this: “The words reach him as if transmitted over a vast distance and he feels each fall on him like a mote of infinite density that punctures and passes through him.” At such moments the novel takes itself too seriously. But, in spite of flaws, this is an original debut and a writer to watch.

The Many, by Wyl Menmui, Salt Publishing, RRP£8.99, 160 pages

Luke Brown is author of ‘My Biggest Lie’ (Canongate)

Photograph: Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.