The American Academy of Arts & Letters Award-winning author of Reservoir 13 returns with a novel about Robert 'Doc' Wright, a veteran of Antarctic surveying, who survives a disaster out on the ice but cannot speak about it as a result of a stroke he suffers in the aftermath. Meanwhile Anna, his wife, must suddenly scramble to navigate the sharp and unexpected contours of life as a caregiver.
... another McGregor novel that, beneath its serene surface, takes huge risks. There is, for example, the wilful front-loading of the action, with that stirring storm sequence giving way to Doc’s agonisingly slow recovery. McGregor has also chosen to have a main character unable to express himself for most of the book. Fortunately, it’s also another McGregor novel that triumphantly gets away with it ... McGregor commits himself so wholeheartedly to the project of honouring minutiae (and has the literary talent to match) that the scene when post-stroke Doc first learns to touch his nose feels almost as dramatic as an Antarctic blizzard. For another, there’s the bracing awareness that the interconnectedness of human lives has its drawbacks as well as its much-trumpeted benefits ... the novel’s final scenes — poised beautifully between sadness and hope—remind us that the three verbs of the title aren’t a simple progression. Rather, they’re a constantly repeated cycle as life sticks doggedly to the process of going on.
... a jumpier, less cohesive story, with different styles and texture on offer [than in McGregor's previous books], and a reconfigured cast in each of its three main sections ... In the closing section, Robert can take charge of his identity again thanks only to the communal endeavors of the female therapists and caregivers. This would seem to offer Anna a somewhat restrictive model of female heroism, so McGregor is careful to make her a complex character, ambiguous in her responses, withdrawn, and as bad as Robert is at reading social cues ... Robert, however, is a simpler character. Until aphasia makes his thoughts a mystery, he comes across as the sort of person who’s chillingly exposed in early John le Carré novels: an emotionally evasive Englishman who has given all his loyalties to the Institute and to a dream of adventure. In the last third of the novel, McGregor constructs a moving, well-observed drama of rehabilitation around him. There are some astonishing technical feats ... Throughout the book, McGregor returns to language’s incommensurability to experience. It’s iterated obsessively in many different ways ... It’s easy to imagine how McGregor might have arrived at this theme as a means of connecting the Antarctica material to the aphasia material. Whether or not it completely works, and whether or not you can sustain momentum while going from ice floes and leopard seals to a support group in Cambridge, the eerie withholding of moral judgment makes Robert’s failure of character difficult to forget. Robert feels an ecstatic, almost pantheistic sense of oneness with the land ... It’s a sign of McGregor’s skill, and his unforced sense of the mystery at the heart of things, that the novel leaves the reader feeling much the same way.
McGregor’s carefully composed dialogue, filled with the repetition of so few words, had an eerie effect on me: for several days my own inner dialogue was often composed of the same words, as though I, too, was discovering how they could express drastically different emotions yet remain unreadable to the world. I wanted to put the right words into Robert’s mouth, to speak for him, to expedite his thinking process, and I was conscious that in those moments I was in the same predicament as Anna ... Readers impatient with the slowness of the group’s progress won’t be alone: Anna and other caretakers in the room feel the same. By not creating a shortcut either for the characters or for readers, McGregor makes us experience their confusion, frustration, and shifting moods between despair and hope ... In the end it is the other aphasia patients, with the help of the supporters, who begin to gain access to Robert’s mind. Together they put on a theatrical production—limited by their physical and linguistic capacities—recounting how Robert’s last day in Antarctica went wrong. It is a different kind of storytelling, imagined from the center of the storm, with Robert and the other patients all trying to achieve the near impossible in the aftermath of near-fatal events. Inside their damaged brains and hampered bodies they can sense, as a memory so vividly relived, their healthy and eloquent selves. The beauty of their minds, like that of the girl waving at the bus at a street corner without being seen, is preserved.