on 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.
Lean Fall Stand is unusual in the patience and precision of its engagement with a particular clinical disorder
Robert Wright has been working in Antarctica for 30 years. He is more at home at his field station than in the family house, outside Cambridge, from which he has been so regularly absent. This season he is acting as guide and technical assistant for two young mapping specialists, Thomas and Luke. The three-way dynamics are vividly established in agile prose that slips between their different voices and ways of seeing. Robert’s talk of “radio discipline” and “correct operating procedure” meets Luke’s chilled “thanks for sharing”. In the storm, however, they can hear only snatches of each other’s voices on their radios, odd syllables adrift on white noise. Another kind of linguistic puzzle takes over in a long and extraordinary passage that records something close to Robert’s stream of consciousness as his thinking gets more confused in the unfolding disaster. “Wide noise like apple oars. Apple sauce. Appley saws. Appley laws.” He cannot reach the word applause. Tongue-twisters, nursery rhymes and riddles come to mind – but what is happening is no game. “It was sure where he’d fallen. Sore. He was sure. Shore lips.”
It is Robert’s wife, Anna, who subsequently becomes the central figure. We watch her, and watch with her, as she grasps what his physical disability and severe aphasia will mean for them both. McGregor presents a powerful portrait of a woman confronting tragic change, and of fiercely independent spouses thrown together inescapably as carer and cared-for. None of it is written as tragedy – no agonised laments, not even tears – but every line has weight. “I don’t want to be a carer,” Anna says plainly. “I never even really wanted to be a wife.” Now choice doesn’t come into it. “She had to get down on her knees to put the socks on his feet, and his feet into the trousers … She had to leave him in the armchair while she went down to the kitchen, and she had to make him promise not to move.” Fitted out with grab-rails, her remote house “feels like a passenger ferry”, and it’s going to be a lonely