When you're reading a book of short stories, it's pretty common to dog-ear the corner of the story (or two or three) that really wins you over, that really makes you stop and say, "Ouch!" or "Wow!" or "Dear god, it really is all about forgiveness, isn't it?" This week, of the 29 stories in Jon McGregor's collection, I dog-eared 26. Let's add that I was not in the mood for short stories. I was in the mood to sit down with a nice thick novel for a few weeks and make friends. And yet...each tale in this slim, elegant book does something most of us wish would happen to us in real life: It stops us in a humdrum moment and reveals how that small, unnoticed sliver of time can illuminate an entire life.
Some examples: A long-married man decides to tell his wife about a hit-and-run accident that happened on their first date. A widow realizes an old flame has come to visit not to woo her but to ask for money (and something even more offensive). Plenty of other authors can pinpoint these moments too. But McGregor has a casual yet audacious way of dropping you in at exactly the right pause, as if you were falling into water without the sound of a splash, then carried briskly along. When a father comes to see his son's school play, the action begins: "They told him he wasn't allowed on the school premises. They didn't even use the word 'allowed' to start off with, they just said they thought it would be better if he didn't come in." We readers don't know who "they" are, but we quickly find out—and we also quickly find out why he should not go inside (the reason is painful, so please prepare yourself).
Some of the stories are as straightforward as ones you might tell yourself; others explore the unexpected, like the one where a page is narrated by the husband, and the opposite is narrated by the wife, who is trying to write a poem. However, the great triumph here is that nothing confuses or distracts or even seems out of the ordinary. Booker-nominated McGregor proceeds with such clarity and such confidence in our daily lives. No houses burn down, and no vampires seduce the local teenage beauty. The magic here is in the field or sea or window, starting with the first two-page masterpiece in which a husband listens to his wife exclaiming about the colors of fall, colors they have discussed over and over during a lifetime together—and he feels for her hand and holds it, saying, "But tell me again."