Reser­voir 13 far from your run-of-the-mill who­dunit

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - CHUCK ERION Chuck Erion is the for­mer co-owner of Wordsworth Books in Water­loo.

“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

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