Pity, the debut novel from Andrew McMillan covers similar terrain to his previous poetry collections – an apt metaphor for a book that is as interested in what lies beneath the surface as in what can be seen on ground level. Pity follows three male generations of a Barnsley family: Brian, a miner; his sons Brian and Alex, whose lives have been shaped by the industry’s demise; and Alex’s son Simon, navigating the new economic landscape in a call centre by day and through sex work by night.
Their stories are intertwined with the fieldnotes of academics who are visiting the town to stage what they call “a week-long discursive intervention to explore the history and inheritance of social trauma”. Try as they might, these well-meaning outsiders can never truly understand (in Brian Jr’s view, as a research participant), but they do at least offer a framework for making sense of the book by introducing Avery Gordon’s concept of social haunting: “what’s been concealed is very much alive and present”.
This is no dry literary exposition of a scholarly thesis, though. A succinct novel that profitably swerves self-consciously “poetic” language in preference for the every day, Pity is subtly affecting and evocative. Just as the academics belatedly acknowledge that there is no single overarching narrative, each character is depicted searching for his own truth – coming to terms with the past (both local and personal) and adjusting to the present.
Pity, Andrew McMillan (Canongate)
Price: £14.99. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD