The BookBrowse Review

Published October 6, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Rise Up! by Crystal Marie Fleming (rated 5/5)

Lean Fall Stand
Lean Fall Stand
A Novel
by Jon McGregor

Hardcover (21 Sep 2021), 288 pages.
Publisher: Catapult
ISBN-13: 9781646220991

A thrilling and propulsive novel of an Antarctica expedition gone wrong and its far-reaching consequences for the explorers and their families "leaves the reader moved and subtly changed, as if she had become part of the story" (Hilary Mantel).

Remember the training: find shelter or make shelter, remain in place, establish contact with other members of the party, keep moving, keep calm.

Robert 'Doc' Wright, a veteran of Antarctic surveying, was there on the ice when the worst happened. He holds within him the complete story of that night—but depleted by the disaster, Wright is no longer able to communicate the truth. Instead, in the wake of the catastrophic expedition, he faces the most daunting adventure of his life: learning a whole new way to be in the world. Meanwhile Anna, his wife, must suddenly scramble to navigate the sharp and unexpected contours of life as a caregiver.

From the Booker Prize-longlisted, American Academy of Arts & Letters Award-winning author of Reservoir 13, this is a novel every bit as mesmerizing as its setting. Tenderly unraveling different notions of heroism through the rippling effects of one extraordinary expedition on an ordinary family, Lean Fall Stand explores the indomitable human impulse to turn our experiences into stories—even when the words may fail us.

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Excerpted from Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor . Copyright © 2021 by Jon McGregor . Excerpted by permission of Catapult. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In this gripping novel, a veteran worker at an Antarctic surveying station suffers a stroke during a freak storm and struggles through an uphill battle to heal.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Robert "Doc" Wright has spent most of his working life at Station K in Antarctica as the "general technical assistant," an expedition guide and safety expert for the post's many scientific visitors. This time out, he shares the "iron blood"-colored hut of Station K with two young post-doc researchers, Thomas and Luke, tasked with updating GPS mapping. Once their work is complete with days to spare, the trio trek out to indulge Thomas's photography hobby. One bad decision, however, will have irrevocable consequences.

Lean Fall Stand is a linguistically spare and experimental novel that intrepidly embodies the mind and senses of a man suffering a massive stroke and its aftereffects. Author Jon McGregor focuses on a different character in each of the novel's three parts, providing a 360-degree portrait of a person with aphasia (a language disorder, see Beyond the Book) and his caregivers. In the first portion of the book, "Lean," what happens out on the ice to Doc, Thomas and Luke is presented in a quilt-like mélange of each man's memories of their first days at Station K, bracketed between their frantic efforts to locate one another after a fast-moving, freak storm roars down around them.

Doc, who ill-advisedly separates himself from the two neophytes to provide perspective for one of Thomas's photos, struggles to locate them before "something sharp" strikes him on the back of the neck, knocking him out. Regaining consciousness back outside the hut, Doc doesn't know how he got there — he only knows his right leg isn't working properly and his thoughts don't make sense. Inside, he drags himself to the radio to try to contact the others. Little does he know that Thomas has been cast adrift on an ice floe, with no satellite phone to fix his position for Doc and Luke. The situation goes from bad to worse as the massive stroke Doc suffers impacts his ability to think and speak clearly. Thomas, cold and alone, hears Doc's faint, befuddled voice on the radio: "Stand by for a brief quickening…Situation upstate."

In "Fall," Doc's wife Anna flies urgently to the Santiago hospital where he is being treated. Through Anna's eyes, the reader comes to know Robert, a man quite different from the "Doc" of Antarctica. For Anna, Robert is the man gone for several months every year, sometimes all year, working for the Antarctic Research Institute with a passion missing from his marriage and his parenting. Once Robert is flown back to Cambridge, England, Anna's career as a prominent climate scientist is put on indefinite hold as she becomes the sole caregiver to her recovering husband. Tasked with Robert's physical care and responsible for his speech therapy, Anna somehow navigates the upending of her life: The man who was never there is now there all the time, and Anna must "lock herself in the bathroom sometimes, just for privacy." McGregor reveals the thankless nature of a full-time caregiver's work, but Anna's actions are all the reader is shown. She is dutiful, distant and tired in her new role, mutely submissive. It is not clear if McGregor's unsympathetic and shallow portrayal of Anna is intentional, but the effect is the same.

In "Stand," Robert and Anna attend a weekly speech therapy group with other stroke survivors led by Amira, a young and creative speech-language therapist. She is caring and comfortable around people with severe speech issues who often make little sense and swear frequently. For example, Robert constantly blurts out "Yes, yes!," "Christ!" or "Obviously, of course!" In her therapy group, Amira recognizes that spoken instruction is no help for many suffering with aphasia; one patient, for instance, "needed to feel his body doing a movement before he was able to repeat it." McGregor did extensive research into stroke and aphasia by attending a self-help group for many months, the fruits of which are these long chapters of the rehab grind.

There are many harrowing moments in Lean Fall Stand, and McGregor is innovative in his depiction of the internal monologue of a person suffering a massive stroke, mixing up words in a cruel creative cocktail. The events at Station K during the storm are a mystery to the Institute and the friends and families of those impacted; Robert's stroke obscures the search for answers, adding tragedy upon tragedy in a way that defies a tidy resolution. One slight quibble is the flat depiction of Anna. Perhaps it is an emotional incuriousness on McGregor's part that bedevils this part of the story, as the reader comes away with a two-dimensional picture of a supremely joyless woman. Otherwise, Lean Fall Stand is a groundbreaking journey into the ways words can bind up, break apart or fail entirely, and how human beings will always find a way to be heard.

Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski

Washington Post
The first 80 pages of this novel are as gripping as anything you'll read this year...The final scenes, while not as exciting as the opening, offer a quiet exhilaration of their own as well as the tempered hope that, even after a major setback, we might all learn to stand again.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[S]tunning...Readers will be drawn into Robert and Anna's heartbreaking struggle, all rendered in McGregor's crystalline language. This gorgeous work leaves an indelible mark.

The Times (UK)
Another McGregor novel that, beneath its serene surface, takes huge risks...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.

The Daily Telegraph (UK)
Jon McGregor's new novel...opens as excitingly as any work of fiction I've recently read...It's extraordinarily tense and atmospheric—and McGregor's prose is tight as a wire.

The Economist (UK)
This fine novel is reminiscent of A Change of Climate, Hilary Mantel's novel of 1994, with its shifting perspectives and emphasis on a single, life-altering event. The far-ranging human story in Lean Fall Stand simultaneously unfolds and enfolds.

Daily Mail
Jon McGregor's latest has the most thrilling beginning I've read in a novel for some time ... It's a deft sleight of hand—to seduce readers with a spectacular action narrative before giving them an entirely different novel about how we communicate—but regular readers of McGregor will know that it's the unsensational drama contained within the ordinary that interests him as a writer.

The Financial Times
Above all, this is a novel about language: how we fail it as much as it fails us ... McGregor's precise, well-judged prose attests to both the power of language and to the havoc created by its loss.

The Guardian (UK)
A novel of complex feeling and beautiful restraint from one of the finest writers around.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[T]his is...a quiet, beautiful novel that's at once deeply sad and wryly funny. Lyrical and terse, funny and tragic—a marvelous addition to the McGregor canon.

A tour de force of observational writing, masterfully capturing the struggle, frustration, and determination of Robert's healing process and recovery. Whether describing the majestic beauty of the natural world or the heartbreaking nuances of neurological deficit, McGregor's luminous prose brings the world brilliantly to life.

Author Blurb Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water
Utterly original. Jaw-dropping. Lean Fall Stand is the sort of book you'll think about for ages.

Author Blurb Hilary Mantel
Lean Fall Stand is a beautiful piece of work and should win a roomful of prizes. Jon McGregor writes plainly and exactly, like a poet, and the precision of his writing makes every heart-beat register. The quality of his attention is a flicker of light around the fragile human condition, and it leaves the reader moved and subtly changed, as if she had become part of the story.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Juhi Maurya
Good book
It is a good book. Everyone should read it.

Print Article Publisher's View  


Cartoon drawing with speech bubbles showing how a person with aphasia struggles to communicateIn Lean Fall Stand, the main character suffers a massive and debilitating stroke during a whiteout storm in Antarctica. After being rescued, he returns home to England to begin the long, arduous task of learning to speak again. The medical term for the loss of the ability to understand or express speech is aphasia. It is usually caused by a neurological insult, such as a stroke, brain injury or neurogenerative disease like dementia.

According to the Mayo Clinic, "The most common cause of aphasia is brain damage resulting from a stroke — the blockage or rupture of a blood vessel in the brain. Loss of blood to the brain leads to brain cell death or damage in areas that control language." With certain forms of aphasia, it is not uncommon for some people to retain their intellectual and cognitive abilities, while at the same time being unable to communicate.

How do you recognize aphasia? It is helpful to look for the following signs, as the person may:

  • Speak in short or incomplete sentences
  • Speak in sentences that don't make sense
  • Substitute one word for another or one sound for another
  • Speak unrecognizable words
  • Write sentences that don't make sense
  • Not understand other people's conversation

In the United States, more than two million people are living with aphasia in one of its three forms: Broca's (also called expressive aphasia), Wernicke's (also called receptive aphasia), and global aphasia. The main character in Lean Fall Stand falls under the Broca's spectrum, as he struggles to express himself using only a few words and has difficulty finding the right words for what he is trying to convey. Sometimes called nonfluent aphasia, people with this form may understand what others say better than they can speak themselves. This struggle to communicate and find the right words for things often leads to frustration.

While people with Broca's aphasia can only speak in short sentences of a few words, those with Wernicke's aphasia are fluent, speaking long and complex sentences; however, the sentences often do not make sense and might contain incorrect, unrecognizable or unnecessary words. And while they can speak more fluently, they are less likely to understand spoken words and might be unaware that others cannot understand them.

The most severe form is global aphasia. People with global aphasia struggle with both comprehension and expression, and while those afflicted with the other two forms tend to retain some ability to read and write, those with global aphasia can do neither. This is usually caused by damage to the perisylvian cortex, which is the brain tissue dividing the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

How do people with aphasia recover their ability to communicate? A speech-language pathologist is usually assigned to work with a patient diagnosed with aphasia. Speech and language therapy is a necessary component to rehabilitating the brain's ability to form and identify the right words to match what a person is attempting to communicate. This is often a slow process that only rarely returns the person to their pre-injury abilities. Speech and language therapy also looks to supplement a person's communication experience, i.e., people are taught other ways of conveying information beyond words. In Lean Fall Stand, the therapy group Robert attends uses innovative ways to encourage people to tell their stories through movement and dance. This is an approach that is used in real life to successfully treat aphasia.

Broca's aphasia graphic by Pereoptic

Filed under Medicine, Science and Tech

By Peggy Kurkowski

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