Reservoir 13 far from your run-of-the-mill whodunit
“Reservoir 13,” by Jon McGregor (HarperCollins, 336 pages, $32.99 HC, $19.99 ebook)
When Dave Worsley, co-owner of Words Worth Books, handed me the advance copy of this book, I was hesitant to take it on. Teenage girl goes missing in small northern England town. Or at least that’s what I surmised from the opening paragraph. I tend to avoid the thriller genre and its well-worn tropes. But “Reservoir 13” turned out to be an entirely different book from my expectations. I kept reading in hopes that some piece of evidence from the missing girl would show up, some hint that her disappearance had a cause and an outcome. What readers get instead is 13 years of village life in the Peak District unfolding in all its normal messiness, a bird’s-eye view that interweaves several lives against the backdrop of nature — the badgers, foxes, sheep, fish and fowl in their seasonal cycles.
That interweaving is seamless; Jon McGregor uses long paragraphs that jump from one character’s storyline to another and the nature bits are thrown in too. This was frustrating at first, as was the number of characters to keep track of. But I came to accept that he is playing with our genre-based assumptions and reminding us that time is not just measured by human clocks (he does note the changing of the clocks each spring and fall) but by the cycles of nature that go on despite and beneath the control of the villagers.
This is McGregor’s fourth novel (but the first of his for me). He won the IMPAC Dublin Award in 2012 for his third novel, “Even The Dogs.” He teaches creative writing at the University of Nottingham.
Rebecca Shaw, the missing girl, was staying with her parents for the New Year’s holiday in a renovated barn. The three had visited the area previously and she had gotten to know a couple of local teenagers. The latter, along with most of the village, help with the initial search, but don’t come to the police with what they know about her till months later. Helicopters fly over; divers search the reservoirs, to no avail. The Shaws’ marriage breaks up; the father is seen wandering through the countryside at various times. But basically the search is called off and village life goes on — other marriages come and go, properties are fixed up, children are born, the teenagers go off to university, a few come back. The rituals around annual events: Mischief Night (a.k.a. Halloween), Christmas carolling, the well dressing (I had to look that one up), go on year in and year out. The butcher shop closes, the butcher’s wife opens a gift shop but it too does not survive. The female vicar tries to counsel some of her elderly parishioners; after a few years she moves to Birmingham.
And the reader keeps hoping for clues. The school janitor insists that the outbuilding that contains a rickety boiler be left untouched, but the school board eventually has it demolished (with no body found). At one point, a mother is walking in the woods with her two young sons. She sees a white hoodie and striped leggings, but passes by. This is as close as the story ever gets to solving the mystery.
In a Guardian interview, McGregor says he wrote the book out of sequence, separately following each family’s story line and those of the animals, reservoir, etc. “Then I went back and cut it all up and rearranged it. There was a point when it was purely collage.” The patient reader is rewarded with empathic story-telling, with moments of drama, and of the mundane, and with an overriding sense that life goes on, post-tragedy, with rare moments of clarity. The impatient reader will give up early, like the searchers.
“Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor, HarperCollins