Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home.
Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.
The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.
As the seasons unfold there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together or break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals.
I requested this book as soon as I saw it on NetGalley as I am a fan of Jon McGregor. There is something very entrancing about his prose. His novels are usually short but resonant and linger beyond the page. His sentences are unassuming yet haunting.
This novel is slightly longer than some of his previous titles at over 300 pages but honestly it is a read that flows like a mountain waterfall rather than the still, unmoving reservoirs it describes. You will be caught up in the rhythm of his words and you will move through the pages as gently and as fluently as the rhythm of the seasons he describes, losing track as the days merge into months then years.
Rebecca Shaw has gone missing.
"She was thirteen years old. When last seen she'd been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer, black jeans, and canvas shoes. She was five feet tall with straight, dark-blonde, shoulder-length hair."
The village lead a search, the police investigate and the public are urged to speak up if they see or hear anything that might help. But "doubts were beginning to emerge."
In terms of the search and the investigation, the reader is never given much more information than this. Unusually, the tragedy of the missing girl is the backdrop to the story rather than the main focus. This is not a typical crime novel, it is much more a piece of literary fiction, but it is full of atmosphere and tension. The opening pages capture the oppressive feel within the community as they try to make sense of what has happened and then the mood continues to become more eerie as McGregor writes:
"At night there were dreams about where she might have gone. Dreams about her walking down from the moor, her clothes soaked and her skin almost blue. Dreams about being the first to reach her with a blanket and bring her safely home."
McGregor's uses repetition throughout the novel. Sometimes it is a repetition of the exact sentences, sometimes slight changes are used to mark the passage of time - for example when details are rereleased by the police it is written the same as the initial press release but they change the age, her length of her hair, the condition of her clothes. The dreams suffered by the villagers are also repeated, becoming more and more unsettling or ghostly. Set against this, is the repetition of the description of another fireworks display at New Year - a straight forward, informative sentence which shows how normal life resumes. McGregor's skill is always in this juxtaposition of the ordinary, mundane observations against the more insightful and emotive observations.
I thought the use of repetition was incredibly effective. It is used powerfully to track the passage of time, the inevitable rhythm of the seasons and individuals lives but also more poignantly, the fading hope, the growing desperation and inevitability of life moving on; the fading concern or care for the missing girl. It feels poetic and cyclical. It's clever but understated and without pretension. It's readable and engaging, compelling and sensitive.
McGregor is a great creator of characters. Each character appears to have small, bit part but they are memorable and all evoke sympathy or interest. The girl's mother is like a shadow, spotted around and about the town and the moors, "walking the same paths and tracks she'd always walked." A simple statement but weighted with meaning. One of my favourite characters was Su Cooper, her husband Austin and their twins. I liked the mixture of statements which show the reader how they are looking after their family - that are statements explaining the practicalities of their actions and preparations but over time the sentences reveal more about the tensions, pressures and complexities of family dynamics and marriage.
I liked the almost list like observations. I liked the clear setting of time, season, who was doing what and what was happening where. I liked the mundanity of the meetings people attended, the arrangements they made. Reservoir 13 is like a litany; a repetition of the things people do, the pattern of their lives, the order they think they have created, the inevitability they think their life is following. Yet beneath this, Reservoir 13 is really telling us what is hidden underneath all this. It is an exploration of the human condition - of the little things in life that occur, build up, unfold and affect everyone. Reservoir 13 is poetic and mesmerising. Through it's simple prose it shows how everyday hurt and suffering cannot be hidden even against the distraction of a devastating crime.
McGregor writes in very long paragraphs, with long sentences and a lack of speech punctuation. Some readers may find this difficult to follow or at times overwhelming. I think it is another way of hiding the unusual and the poignant amongst the normal and everyday.
I did enjoy it a lot. I think McGregor is a talented writer. I think his style is unique and very distinctive. It is definitely worthy of re-reading, re-reading and probably re-reading again.
This novel reminded me of some of the aspects of "Happy Valley' and 'Broadchurch'. Reservoir 13 is a gripping character driven story where the police procedural element has been stripped away and made secondary. Although the TV shows are firmly about a police investigation they are also about communities under pressure and characters coping in with everyday life while trying to solve a crime. McGregor looks at the effects of a community during a long running missing persons investigation; what else happens to these people and their lives while the crime continues unsolved. He explores how the police investigation continues to infiltrate and haunt the town but no longer claims the front pages or headlines of their daily life. McGregor asks fascinating questions about human nature, about what is noticed or unnoticed and how the unremarkable is remarkable; how the ordinary can be extraordinary and as damaging and as full of impact as the sensationalist headlines that consume people.
Reservoir 13 is published by Fourth Estate on 6th April 2017.
Jon McGregor is a British author who has written three novels. His first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things was nominated for the 2002 Booker Prize, and was the winner of both the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award in 2003. So Many Ways to Begin was published in 2006 and was on the Booker prize long list. Even the Dogs was published in 2010 and his newest work, Reservoir 13 is due in April, 2017.
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