The natural title of this 'novel' about a certain street in East London might have been 'Brick Lane', but obviously Monica Ali got there first. However, in many ways An Acre of Barren Ground fits Jeremy Gavron's stubborn, indirect, resolutely non-crowd-pleasing way of working much better. It echoes a point made by writers like Patrick Wright, Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair: no acre of ground is barren, and Brick Lane teems with stories reaching back to before the first human settlements.
Gavron has great gifts, most notably a sympathetic imagination that extends to Roman soldiers and hare-lipped 20th-century prostitutes; Muslims, Jews and Huguenots; incestuous families living in grinding poverty and would-be dotcom millionaires with a cocaine habit; reluctant slaughtermen and, notably, animals killed while still alive. He has an equally great fund of energy for different storytelling methods.
The book, which stretches the definition of a novel, consists of more than 30 superficially unconnected extracts. It features photographs, maps, third-person narrative, first-person accounts of Gavron's research, biographical studies of historical figures like James Boswell, collages of quotes and, at the centre, a section from a graphic novel. In many cases, an extract is picked up by another, later one that throws a different light on what we have seen, but some seem linked only by themes of suffering and survival.
This method has many virtues but it also poses problems. I found the book hard to read, and longed for a clearer thread holding its parts together. Sometimes I thought it wilfully difficult, making me read a section twice or three times before I found the story buried in it. For each section plunges you into the middle of things, frequently showing the climactic moment in a far longer story that is never told. …