Jon McGregor is an audacious writer. In an age where narrative in the most popular works of art often proceeds at a breakneck speed, he has chosen to defy this. Reservoir 13 (2017) is his first novel for thirteen years and like his debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002), it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Reservoir 13 also won the Costa Novel Award for 2017. It managed this feat in spite of his use of the passive voice and the utter absence of dialogue in the novel.
Reservoir 13 begins with an apparent hook: a thirteen-year-old girl has gone missing in an unnamed Derbyshire village. Thirteen reservoirs surround the village and the book is divided into thirteen chapters. Each chapter spans a year and it seems reasonable to expect that, by the final one, we will have discovered what has happened to the girl. As years pass, however, those who knew her don’t necessarily inch any closer to discovering the truth. They realise that “The photo on the news never looked right, but it had replaced the image of her they’d held. She was being lost all over again.”
There is a brutality in the way the passing of time seems to obliterate her. The villagers nonetheless dream of the missing girl, amidst their own unfolding dramas - the local butcher has to close his shop, a couple with twins struggle, the local vicar takes a leave of absence, a pensioner falls out with the neighbour who walks his dog. Placing these everyday crises centre stage feels radical, unsettling even and McGregor has said “I wanted this to be a book about the passing of time and routines of life, the dailyness of life”.
Extending his focus beyond human life, he also writes beautifully of fierce dramas in the natural kingdom: “In the beech wood the foxes gave birth, earthed down in the dark and wet with pain, the blind cubs pressing against their mothers for warmth.”
Human rituals are placed within the context of nature: “On the rug the whippet kicked her back legs, dreaming of sprinting across fields. In the quarry by the main road the small coppers were mating again. There were swallows nesting high in the barn, the eggs glossy white and speckled red beneath the fluffed feathers of the mothers. In the woodland by the river the bluebells were massing. The clay for the well dressing was cut from the wet end of the Hunter’s land, and carried up to the village hall.”
There is that sense which Auden wrote about in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts, that personal disasters can occur “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just/walking dully along.” From the opening page, when search parties for the missing girl find "their tracks fading behind them as the heather sprang back into shape," we witness how fleetingly people make an impression on the landscape around them.
The rituals of the village (well-dressing, local cricket matches, harvest festival and Mischief Night) are either adhered to or dropped as McGregor repeatedly subverts our expectations. There is pleasure to be taken in having our narrative assumptions resisted like this and there is an unshowy truth in his delineation of relationships that sometimes work out but often don't.
The honesty in his depiction of sexuality is similarly often poignant and discomfiting. An isolated widow expresses lust obliquely and even then regrets it, reflecting, "She didn’t know why she'd said anything. People were surprised. Thought if you were sleeping alone your blood had stopped circulating. Thought if you were not capable of exciting a man's attention there was no excitement left in you."
Although the narrative shock occurs at the very beginning of this novel, this is not a story without danger or violence but it is of the everyday, utterly believable kind. The novel reads like a meditation on time and though there are inevitable anti-climaxes in a narrative such as this, there is no other way McGregor could have written it, if he wanted to be true to life.
The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. This review was written by the literary critic Alex Peake-Tomkinson. The book club exists in a purely digital space and we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.
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Image by Laura Oosterbeek