Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

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Review by David Hebblethwaite

Reservoir 13 mcgregor

Jon McGregor is a writer whose work deserves the fullest attention, which it will repay with some extraordinary reading experiences. He has an unerring ability to cast the everyday in a mysterious new light. Where McGregor’s previous work has often focused on urban environments, Reservoir 13 – his fourth novel – is a work of the countryside, its landscape as well as its people.

The novel begins with a search for a missing girl:

“They gathered in the car park at the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top. A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard. They were given instructions and then they moved off, their boots crunching on the stiffened ground and their tracks fading behind them as the Heather sprang back into shape. She was five feet tall, with dark-blonde hair. She had been missing for hours.”

I’ve quoted from the opening passage at some length here because I want you to have a good sense of the novel’s prose style. On the face of it, the individual sentences might seem reasonably straightforward, perhaps even plain at times. But once they’re woven together into the dense matting of Reservoir 13’s paragraphs, they are transformed.

The quotation above introduces us to an anonymous group of characters. We can’t see their faces, but we can picture their surroundings. Ironically, the individual we can imagine most vividly is the one who isn’t there: Rebecca Shaw, the missing girl. Yet the sentences describing her are all in the semi-rote language of officialdom; any image formed of her from them will fade if you squint hard enough. The human sentences merge into descriptions of nature, which end up as the scaffolding – the skeleton – shoring up all the activity in McGregor’s paragraphs. And, for all the density of the prose, vast spaces are still opened up – in this example, by those “questions that weren’t being asked.”

Reservoir 13 is a difficult novel to capture because, to an extent, it’s a novel that has to be lived through. Each chapter chronicles one life in the year of its unnamed Peak District village. There is a certain amount of repetition: the chapters all begin with New Year fireworks, or slight variations thereon. Year by year, the book builds up in layers. There are reminders of Rebecca Shaw: new appeals, spurious sightings, occasional appearances by the girl’s parents (the Shaws were on holiday in the area when she disappeared). However, life goes on in the village regardless, and nature with it.

It seems almost beside the point to give any kind of plot summary, partly because the novel’s canvas is so broad (I could summarise it as ‘lives are lived’), and partly because a plot summary won’t tell you about the rhythm of the reading. For that, only a further extended quotation will suffice:

“There was a fight in the Gladstone, and talk it had something to do with Facebook. On the television there were pictures of explosions, fires, collapses, collisions. Broad beans started coming off the allotments by the carrier-bagful, and were shucked into saucepans from their softly-lined pods. The gentle cushioning of the broad-bean pod was one of nature’s senseless excesses. The work was a tedious delight. In his studio Geoff Simmonds took each newly fired pot from the tray and smashed it against the floor. He worked at a methodical pace. The rhythm was soothing.”

In this passage, you can see how McGregor stretches and shifts the novel’s focus . A pub fight is dispensed with in a sentence – and various potential catastrophes on TV are dispensed with in even less – but the preparation of broad beans gets much closer attention. It’s a question, perhaps, of what matters most to someone in the moment. Those images on screen, however distressing, are inevitably distant; the broad beans are here, a pleasurable routine.

After that, we switch to an arresting character scene: the potter Geoff Simmonds breaking his pots in the same way that someone else might shuck broad beans. We discover shortly why he’s doing this, but it’s disarming to read in the moment. The whole novel is built like this: movements between individual characters and generalities; deft and powerful shifts of attention. Reservoir 13 examines the evolution of a community by building it up over time, and twisting together its many strands into a remarkable, multi-dimensional portrait.

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2017), 9780008204853, 336pp., hardback.

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