Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home. Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed. The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must. Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss; of the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a stranger's tragedy refuse to subside.
"Twenty feet in from the entrance, past dead-ends and leaf-lined sleeping nooks, the first cubs of the year were being born, spilling blind into a dark world of grassy warmth and milk. The days started with a cold mist that didn't lift until lunchtime and then only seemed to get snagged in the tops of the trees."
A thirteen-year-old girl visiting on holiday disappears from a small English village. This singular event serves as the fulcrum around which McGregor's melancholy story of village life rotates. If you're looking for a thriller of a read, this novel is not for you. The story unfolds at the pace of life, not the breakneck pace we currently think of as the pace of life, but the steady progression of seasons, the march toward the inevitable that can seem so slow but, once we get there, turns out to have been lightning quick. The characters develop so subtly that at first the reader wonders if any of them will take form. They do. They become neighbors and friends, distant acquaintances and icons of the village, just as they are. Best of all, even the landscape emerges as it would for anyone living in the village; the packhorse bridge and the crows and the foxes are characters too, members of the community whom we watch move through the seasons as vividly as if we stood in the copse below Reservoir 7 or on the gravel path up to Reservoir 5. Memorable and worthy of its Booker nomination.
If you're like me, you probably only remember two or three things from that party. I would likely recall one or two of the most interesting people. I might recall the story one of them told me. I might remember the name of an attractive face. And I'd remember the host. Outside of these things, I will remember none of the details. So when Jon calls the next evening and tells me about what happened between James and Liam, Jones, Miss Dale, whomever, I will have no idea who he's talking about.
That is the structure of Reservoir 13 and part of the problem for readers such as myself. Sure, there are those who go to a party and can recall eighty or ninety percent of what they've been told. They never forget a name or a face. Those people will probably have a much easier time with this story. Me, I was struggling chapter by chapter trying to remember anything about the person from the previous chapters.
Reservoir 13 is without a primary character. It's a story about a town, and I love that. But in each chapter, representing another year passed, we're only given a couple sentences or a few paragraphs about each character. I couldn't keep it straight. And so, while a few remained in my memory from chapter one, others may have not made an impact until I got to know them better around chapter seven or eight. Others never made an impact, and though they were important throughout the novel, by the book's final chapter I honestly had no idea who they were. This can obviously make for a very frustrating read.
Reservoir 13 is a beautiful depiction of a village and all that happens around it. Perhaps the only character of relevance to this story is the town itself. There's some really great writing throughout, but those looking for a thread of a story or of characters they can bond with will struggle to make it all the way through. I struggled through to the end, recognizing the intelligence and beauty of this story and I wish I could've loved it, but I merely appreciate it for the talent shown. In a matter of weeks, I'll have forgotten all but what I remember from that party the very first night. It's not the fault of the host or of the town. It's my own. But one cannot discount that there are many others such as myself at the party and amongst the readers.
The thing that is most satisfying and impressive about this book is its style and approach. I’ve read two other McGregor novels and let me tell you - he varies his language and story-telling technique to serve the story itself. In this case his sentences and phrases are repeated often as the tale goes forward. You will recognize the themes and situations, but they are ever so slightly altered in each year so that there is progress made or a new aspect shown. As an example I’ll repeat the opening lines to each chapter marking the years since Rebecca’s disappearance -
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry and no one came out to watch.”
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.”
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from all across the village.”
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks from the Hunter place.”
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the television in the pub and dancing in the street outside.”
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up all across the village but from the hill they looked faint and the sound failed to carry.”
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the big screen in the village hall and the sound of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ along the street.”
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks in the rain, and thunder in the next valley.”
“At midnight when the year turned Rohan found Lyndsey on the dance floor at the village hall and hissed her while ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was sung.”
“At midnight when the year turned there was a fire in the caravan in the Fletcher’s orchard.”
“At midnight when the year turned there fires in three sheds at the allotments, and again they were burnt out before the fire brigade arrived.”
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but no one in the village even lifted their heads to look.”
“At midnight there were fireworks in the next valley and tension in the village and no fires were set.”
All other aspects of village life are related in this repeating cycle. People’s situations and relationships, the state of bridges and well dressing, births, deaths, marriages and affairs. And not just for the humans, but animals, too - wood pigeons, springtails, foxes, badgers and the cycles of the river and reservoirs. Each aspect related is strung together one sentence to the next and not isolated in its own paragraph or section. Even though there are many actual reservoirs in the book, I think that the title refers to the number of chapters and that each one is a reservoir of village life as told over the course of one year. The deliberateness of this adds to the sense of the whole working together as one clockwork. When one thing is out of balance, all things are out of balance. It’s an amazing piece of work and beautifully rendered.
The chapters move quietly, gently and seamlessly from character to character, scene to scene, vignette to vignette, building an intricate and complex whole, all like fragments of a mosaic gradually coming together.
Don't be misled by descriptions of the book--it's not a murder mystery.
I will admit to getting drawn in, after initially dreading the lack of basic narrative markers, such as dialogue and paragraphs (alright, there are paragraphs, but the wall of text faced on every new page was still daunting!) Lives move on, but nothing really happens - children grow up, couples grow apart, people die. It's like a very boring episode of early Emmerdale. But for all that, I was hooked - although I was still hoping for some resolution! I felt I got to know most of the characters, though, which is quite a feat .
Just a thought - if anyone is looking for a novel with a similar premise but more of a plot, try On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, a Dalziel and Pascoe mystery. The setting is very similar, with reservoirs formed out of flooded villages, and the story involves a missing girl.
[Update 29/8/17] Having read all but four of the longlist, this one is still my favourite. The rest of my shortlist would be Autumn, Home Fire, Days Without End, Solar Bones and Elmet. Of the remaining four, Lincoln in the Bardo is the most likely to change my mind.
[Update following shortlist announcement] I am hugely disappointed that this missed the cut!
McGregor's debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is still one of my favourites, and although his two subsequent novels (So Many Ways to Begin and Even the Dogs) were more difficult reads they still contained some luminous prose and demonstrated his versatility.
This one is a story of a fictional village which is never named, but is a composite of various locations in the Peak District. Like Sarah Hall's Lake District, it consists of landscapes and features which are very familiar to those of us who know the area, but these are concentrated into a smaller space than in reality. The story takes place over a 13 year period, with each chapter following the events of a single year.
The starting point is the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl who was staying in a holiday cottage in the village one New Year's Eve. She is never found, and the case is never solved, but instead we see its effects rippling as the omniscient narrator describes the lives of the villagers and the natural cycles, plants, wildlife, weather and other things that frame them - this gives the whole a rather satisfying structure in which some things recur but we see the characters develop and the character of the village itself subtly evolve. McGregor has an eye for detail and some of the landscape descriptions are very beautiful, he also allows breathing space for all of his characters, and writes equally convincingly about the young and the old, the male and the female. He is unsentimental about the nature of rural life but very sympathetic to the lives that make up the community.
This is a quiet, mature and richly rewarding book, probably his best yet.
The structure of the book is intriguing: There are thirteen chapters. Each chapter covers a year in the life of the village and contains twelve or thirteen paragraphs. The paragraphs are structured around the happenings in roughly one month time segments that describe events in the natural world (plants and animal behavior) as well as various member of the community. Dialogue punctuation is minimal.
In the descriptions of the people in the village, think of a long episode of Midsommer Murders without the presence of DCI Barnaby and PC Jones. Everyone has their secrets, hidden motivations, and private thoughts...which often reflect back to the disappearance of the Rebecca, Becky, Bex.
Perhaps those most affected by the disappearance are four teens who are around the same age as Rebecca Shaw and had known her from an earlier visit the previous summer. For me, their lives were the most interesting to see unfold over the thirteen years. Especially when they leave for college and learn that the missing girl has come to be the one thing that identifies their home town on a national level.
When I first leafed through the book, I suspected that the writing and structure might be a gimmick and was a bit put off. Once I got half way through the second chapter, I was hooked. There are a lot of literary rules broken in this novel, but the author demonstrates that he knows enough about those rules to break them well and create a great piece of literature.
Over the course of a decade, each new year is marked by fireworks, seasonal changes in animals and plants and the lives of the citizens go on. Couples break up, come together, have babies, die....and Rebecca (or Becky or Bex) while never forgotten, fades further into the background.
What is unique about the style is that the author writes in a very matter-of-fact way -- simple sentences, short vignettes of many citizens --yet manages to draw the reader into the life of the community and its inhabitants. Very well done!
The entire novel rests on the quality of McGregor's writing and on his ability to describe complex situations in a minimum of words and of writing vivid, breathing characters in just a few sentences here and there. It took me a few chapters to fall into the rhythm of the novel, but once I did, I enjoyed every minute spent with it. Reservoir 13 really is an extraordinary book.
That description makes the novel sound like a murder mystery, but it is not at all.
In fact, we never find out what happened to Rebecca. I am in two minds about whether this is a weakness or whether finding out would undermine the whole narrative. Certainly my immediate reaction, on reaching the last page, was that I had been conned!
The chapters describe the next 13 years in the life of the village; the villagers, the animals, nature. The villagers remember and wonder about the missing girl, but memories fade and newcomers to the village obviously feel differently. The farming/nature descriptions point up the rhythm and relentless passing of the seasons. (I started to skim these towards the end).
There was a very lulling, poetic feel to the narrative, which was told in a very consistent tone; that of an impartial observer. There was a slight feeling of detachment; even very terrible things were somewhat distanced and, in the context of the passing of time, probably of only passing importance. Nevertheless there was a lot of sympathy and understanding. I wondered a little at the excessive impact of the girl's disappearance on a community that didn't even know her. Would students, going away to university years later, really be identified so completely with the story?
I enjoyed this novel, but found it bizarre at the same time.
If you like genre fiction, RESERVOIR 13 will not be your cup of tea. However, if you appreciate a painterly depiction of a small isolated community dealing with the quotidian issues that people experience in their daily lives, this will be a satisfying reading experience. Much like the pointillist painters, McGregor gives us multiple small distinct daubs of color that illuminate a larger image of village life and the rhythms of its natural environment. These resolve into thirteen coherent portraits, one for each year after the disappearance of Rebecca. One sees how the disappearance dominates for a short time, but quickly recedes into the background leaving only the subtlest of scars that never seem to fully heal.
After observing a search for a missing child, McGregor came to realize “that if you were part of such a search, you’d start off feeling very focused, but sooner or later you’d inevitably let your guard down, start getting distracted by the fact your feet are wet, or that you’ve got to go back and feed the cows.” This thought serves as the basis for his exploration of how people contend with tragic events and manage to go on. The setting is isolated and circumscribed—almost claustrophobic. The omniscient narrator briefly focuses on individuals in the community and events in the natural environment. McGregor evokes the passage of time and familiarity through repetition, embellishing each story slowly in succeeding chapters but rhythmically repeating words, phrases, and events. Each begins with an identical line: “At midnight when the year turned,” In effect, each year serves as a reservoir for these stories, giving the title its meaning. Seasons come and go; people marry and separate; children are born and grow up; some die; some succeed and others fail; some are kind and other are not. Throughout, Rebecca is always a ghostly presence. “Dreams were had about her, still…walking home. Walking beside the motorway, walking across the moor, walking up out of one of the reservoirs.”
Clearly, McGregor is selling something he realizes many people may not ever want to buy—a novel about the dignity of human existence and the passage of time. Thus his marketing strategy is quite clever— to tease us with the need to find out what happened to Rebecca. Indeed, it would spoil the fun to reveal if we ever do learn what happened to Rebecca.
The story surrounds the disappearance of Rebecca Shaw, a teenage girl who went missing while on holiday with her family in an unspecified locality 'at the heart of England'. A tragic, and sadly all too familiar a scenario. McGregor certainly captures the bleakness of the situation excellently, and also portrays the impact upon the local community. While everyone rallies around to help with the search for the missing girl, life does also go on, and as time goes by a sense of resentment grows among the locals. After all, everyone now remains under suspicion, and the village struggles to slough off its association with the disappearance.
McGregor's style has a starkness that becomes oppressive (and potential readers should perhaps be aware that there is no shred of light relief, at all), yet suits the bleak nature of the story. It also matches the landscape. This is a working countryside, not one of bucolic rhapsody, in which farmers and local businesses struggle to make a living, and the distractions and disruptions arising from the search for the missing girl only add to the bleakness and despair of life.
This is a truly fascinating novel. Jon McGregor follows the events of this English village and its surrounding moorland over the course of 13 years. But the viewpoint is distant, so far above the lives of the villagers that their actions are no more significant than those in the badger sett on the edge of the town near the allotments. Yet at times McGregor swoops down on individuals, like a bird of prey, so that we see them up close, larger than life. And then, without passing judgement, he swoops out again and time passes. No single story line holds sway. There is no apparent object. Progress is entirely temporal, i.e. the passing months that mark out the year. People age. They come and go. But with no more significance than the passing rains that fill the reservoirs or the hot summers that deplete them. It’s mesmerizing.
Ultimately this is a tour de force that may not be more than that. Although McGregor’s achievement here is remarkable, I doubt it sets out a new direction for the novel form. It’s an impressive feat, but once encountered I don’t see it being repeated. I could be wrong. Nevertheless, even if this is a one-off, it is certainly well worth reading and thinking about how it achieves its ends, and what that might mean. Highly recommended.