The haunt­ing of our fab­ric, skin and bones

Jon McGregor’s mys­tery about a teenage girl who goes miss­ing on hol­i­day finds the au­thor rak­ing through the minu­tiae of life and the land­scape, Matthew Adams writes

The National - News - The Review - - Fiction - Matthew Adams is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

McGregor draws our at­ten­tion to the cus­toms and rhythms of this world, and to many of the non-hu­man forms of life that con­trib­ute to the mak­ing of a place

When Jon McGregor’s de­but novel If No­body Speaks of Re­mark­able Things ap­peared in 2002, it marked the ar­rival of a nov­el­ist who was de­ter­mined to awaken in his read­ers an en­hanced ap­pre­hen­sion of the won­der of the ev­ery­day – of the num­ber­less sounds that con­sti­tute the “word­less song” of ur­ban life. Lis­ten care­fully to the “low sooth­ing hum of air-con­di­tion­ers”, the book told us, and you will hear some­thing mag­i­cal: “long breaths lay­ered upon each other, a lul­laby hum for tired streets”.

Over the course of his ca­reer, McGregor has con­tin­ued to draw his read­ers’ at­ten­tion to the rich­ness and the fe­cun­dity of the ap­par­ently or­di­nary life. Yet he has also dis­played a ten­dency to ex­plore such ter­ri­tory by at­tend­ing to the ways in which such lives can be af­fected by in­stances of ex­trem­ity.

In Even the Dogs (2010), he set out to ex­am­ine the ef­fects of the sud­den death of Robert, an al­co­holic, on a group of work­ing-class ad­dicts with whom he has as­so­ci­ated in the fi­nal years of his life. And in his lat­est and re­mark­able work, Reser­voir 13, he at­tempts once more to doc­u­ment the ways in which an in­stance of vi­o­lent anom­aly can re­ver­ber­ate in the land of the over­looked and the os­ten­si­bly undis­tin­guished.

Set in a name­less town some­where in the English Mid­lands, the book opens in mid­win­ter, early in the present cen­tury. A 13-year-old girl by the name of Re­becca Shaw has been hol­i­day­ing in the area with her par­ents and has gone miss­ing.

In the course of her stay in the town, she has formed only a hand­ful of slight re­la­tion­ships. But the com­mu­nity is shaken by her dis­ap­pear­ance, and as the book opens – in dark­ness, and at early morn­ing – we en­counter an ar­ray of the town’s res­i­dents gath­ered in a car park as they pre­pare to help the police with their search. The scene is solemn and omi­nous, the as­sem­bled vol­un­teers grave and la­conic: “It was cold and there was lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion. There were ques­tions that weren’t be­ing asked.”

As the year un­folds and Re­becca’s where­abouts re­main undis­cov­ered, ru­mours, sus­pi­cions and sto­ries about her fate spread through the town – a place where she was hardly known, but in which her ab­sence has trans­formed her into a spec­tral and al­most om­nipresent fig­ure who seems to oc­cupy the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of the pop­u­lace.

Grad­u­ally, the years slip by. No trace of Re­becca is found. And we ob­serve the town’s in­hab­i­tants as they carry on with the dif­fi­cult busi­ness of car­ry­ing on.

McGregor grants us ac­cess to these lives by keep­ing us rel­a­tively dis­tant from them. He hov­ers over the com­mu­nity he has cre­ated with an al­most dis­in­ter­est­edly at­ten­tive om­ni­science, di­rect­ing his gaze now to a group of lo­cal teenagers, now to Jack­son the farmer, now to Martin and Ruth Fowler and their trou­bled marriage, now to Jones the care­taker. The novel is richly and densely peo­pled, and although McGregor only per­mits the reader rel­a­tively brief en­coun­ters with his char­ac­ters’ lives, as we re­turn to them over the years we come to know them with an un­set­tling and af­fect­ing de­gree of in­ti­macy.

The ef­fect is cu­mu­la­tive. We see peo­ple mak­ing er­rands; par­ents on school runs. And oc­ca­sion­ally we are of­fered glimpses of their silent anx­i­eties and pri­vate dreams.

That these should ar­rive with such in­ten­sity is tes­ta­ment to McGregor’s sense of con­trol and re­straint. There is a vol­ume, as he puts it in the book, to what is not be­ing said. And this vol­ume is am­pli­fied by his de­ter­mi­na­tion to see the world in which his char­ac­ters move in its en­tirety.

He draws our at­ten­tion to its cus­toms and its rhythms, and to many of the non-hu­man forms of life that con­trib­ute to the mak­ing of a place. We are asked to no­tice tiny changes in the sea­sons. We see wood pi­geons gath­ered to roost at dusk. We join bats “folded deeply into hi­ber­na­tion” in the eaves of a church. And we of­ten do so in pre­cise and care­fully mod­u­lated prose.

McGregor shows us “slabs of glassy ice turn­ing on the black wa­ter”. He de­scribes how, “The sun cut fur­ther into the val­ley and un­der the ash trees the first new ferns un­furled from the cold black soil.”

As he does so, the peo­ple of the town get on with their lives. Re­becca re­mains un­found and un­known, and might one day be un­re­mem­bered. But there is a sense in which she has been ab­sorbed into the lin­ea­ments of the com­mu­nity in which she van­ished. And that in this way, per­haps, she will never quite be gone.

Reser­voir 13 Jon McGregor Fourth Estate, Dh52

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