Editor's Note: At the time I wrote this, McGregor had no further novels, but now, nine years later, he does. Also, I am not sure if I knew when I wrote this that he was local, not to the town in Leicestershire where I lived, but to the city, Nottingham, where I worked, a city that started to almost feel like a hometown to me. He has come into the recognition I felt he deserved back then, and the novel is now referred to as "critically acclaimed" on Alibris.
The first, and so far, I believe, only novel by Jon McGregor, this is a book that needs more recognition. Reviewers liked it - a lot - and so did I. It is written in a poetic style like a long poem in blank verse. Many of the main characters in the story are never named but are referred to by the house number on the street where the "remarkable things" take place. The story is also like a Greek tragedy, in that almost all of the action takes place in a very short space of time, and on a single street in a typical Northern English city. The street is not a posh or fashionable one; most of the inhabitants are students or immigrants or disabled. There are children playing in the street, which doesn't happen so much in the upscale neighbourhoods. There are people making love in the afternoon, there are very old people who stand at the window and see what goes on in the street. This is an elegaic story, a story full of wonder and melancholy and miracles and disasters and minute observation of the everyday. It's not like any other novel you have ever read.
Now a major motion picture, as they say. This was a very cinematic book, as other reviewers of the film have pointed out, and did really cry out to be made into a lovely movie. I haven't seen the movie, just read the book. It had a really authentic-seeming feel, in that as one read it, one felt immersed in this 17th century Dutch town culture, but do we really know what that was like? No, but it was convincing. A little less convincing were the motivations of the main character, Griet. What Chevalier has done with this book is to imagine a persona for the mysterious girl in the painting, of whom no one knows a thing - her age, name, relationship to the painter Vermeer if any. Of especial mystery is her clothing in the painting, which is not typical of any known style at the time. It is vaguely exotic-looking, yet the girl herself is anything but exotic, and is in fact most remarkable for her simplicity and quintessential pretty-young-Dutch-girl appearance. So Chevalier has imagined her as a teenaged maid, from a nice "middle-class" artisan family, forced into service because of her father's industrial accident, and thrust into a slightly alien Catholic household headed by a non-communicative painter and his troubled wife and dominating mother-in-law. All in all I had mixed feelings about the book. It was like a great painting of which you don't know enough; it seemed to promise more than it delivered somehow. And yet I have to give it points for realism, for that very reason: life is often mysterious and vaguely unsatifying, and this book is a hyper-realistic slice of life.