Na­ture marks the eerie pas­sage of time

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The past decade has seen a surge in books about the quo­tid­ian. From Ben Lerner’s smart ex­pan­sions of time in to Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s ob­ses­sively re­called bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­els and Claire-Louise Ben­nett’s Pond, im­mer­sive pros­e­po­etry-in-place, a sig­nif­i­cant strand of con­tem­po­rary fic­tion has been de­vot­ing it­self to catch­ing re­al­ity in its minute un­fold­ing.

Such books find their par­al­lel in re­cent “slow cinema”: films such as Le Qu­at­tro Volte, which takes us be­yond hu­man hours into the cy­cles of the Earth. Mean­while, na­ture writ­ing, with its slow habits across sea­sons, has been in­fil­trat­ing the other gen­res, such as travel writ­ing and even bi­og­ra­phy. Re­cently I met a writer work­ing on an “eco-bi­og­ra­phy”, which told the story of her hu­man sub­ject in the con­text of lo­cal ecosys­tems.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence na­ture of­ten looms large in what we now think of broadly as slow art. Th­ese are far from the old modernist experiments in time, bent on cap­tur­ing the ex­cit­ing new tech­nolo­gies the 20th cen­tury had to of­fer. In­stead, this bur­row­ing into the present is of­ten an act of re­sis­tance. A stud­ied re­buke to the glossy, non-echoic vaults of vir­tual re­al­ity, this close fo­cus on the present, es­pe­cially the nat­u­ral, in­sists on keep­ing alive a threat­ened “real”.

Reser­voir 13, the new novel by young Bri­tish writer Jon McGre­gor, is surely one of the more cu­ri­ous prod­ucts of this mo­ment. Set in a ru­ral Bri­tish vil­lage some­where near Manch­ester, the novel be­gins with the dis­ap­pear­ance of 13-yearold Re­becca Shaw, who has been stay­ing with her par­ents in a let-out barn con­ver­sion.

The reser­voir of the ti­tle is one of 13 that brood above the ham­let. Becky may have fallen into one, or into a boggy ravine, or met with foul play. A com­mu­nity search, po­lice re­con­struc­tions and me­dia cir­cus fail to bring her fate to light. As the days, then years, pass, the vil­lage be­gins to re­turn to its old re­la­tion­ships and habits, al­beit with an eerie sense of the un­re­solved. Chil­dren grow up and leave and won­der if they should have said every­thing about the last hours they spent with Becky; the well out­side the church is dressed; the poach­ers keep poach­ing; dogs are walked.

Some strange old char­ac­ters seem more sin­is­ter than be­fore, such as school grounds­man Joe. The girl’s mother even­tu­ally leaves; her fa­ther is seen com­pul­sively walk­ing the land­scape. Busi­nesses start and fail. Ro­mances and friend­ships wax and wane.

McGre­gor re­lates all th­ese in­cre­men­tal changes in a glassy prose, its sur­face barely rip­pled by a comma. It is as if we are hov­er­ing over

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