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
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