Nature marks the eerie passage of time
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