Jon McGregor’s latest novel covers thirteen years in a northern village, beginning at the turn of the twenty-first century. The novel begins when a teenage girl – ‘Rebecca or Becky or Bex‘ – goes missing, and the locals, who join the search for her, feel the loss, even though they barely knew her. Thereafter, each chapter, always beginning with the phrase ‘At midnight when the year turned‘, covers a year in the life of the village, as the thirteen-year-olds who befriended Becky grow into young adults and leave for university, marriages break up, older residents die, and new villagers arrive.
McGregor is keen to fit human lives into the natural landscape, and so his prose places as much weight on animal or meteorological events than on human unhappiness or joy. This smoothes events seamlessly into the march of the writing, so often it is difficult to notice that something significant has happened. In chapter five, for example: ‘His mother’s front door was unlocked and they walked in together. His mother was lying on the kitchen floor… It took the two of them to pick her up and get her into a chair‘, then, in the same long paragraph: ‘A fog came in and lay heavy for a week and even at noon the only colour in the street was the buttery light spilling from house windows‘. Paragraphs tend to be huge, swallowing up whole pages, so McGregor can juxtapose events in this way. He also spares lots of space for the cycles of wild lives: ‘The woodpigeons built their nests in the trees by the river. The thin frame of sticks seemed barely enough to take the weight of one fat bird. But it was assumed they knew what they were doing.’
As these quotations (and his previous novels) suggest, McGregor’s prose is always clean and clear, and there are often touches of light humour. However, even trying to reconstruct what he’s aiming to achieve in Reservoir 13 in the most sympathetic way possible, I’m afraid that I wasn’t won over. Inevitably, I found myself making comparisons to his wonderful debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and these comparisons seemed to illuminate why Reservoir 13 wasn’t working in the same way. If Nobody Speaks also takes a panoramic view of a large cast of characters, but by centring itself around one first-person account, as well as making space for us to get to know each of the cast individually, it achieves a wonderful sense of a living neighbourhood, where people are both separate and apart. In Reservoir 13, the characters are much flatter, and I found it very difficult to get much sense of them. To take a few examples, the ‘teenagers’ Sophie, James, Lynsey and Rohan probably get as much page-time if not more than any other group, yet by the end of the novel I found it impossible to say much about any of them, or how they were different from each other. Perhaps it is McGregor’s aim to try and make human life seem more like the lives of woodpigeons, or of pheasants – but in that case, it wasn’t a device that made me warm to this novel.
Finally, I don’t think that Reservoir 13 showcases the best of McGregor’s writing. If Nobody Speaks, Even the Dogs, and a number of his short stories have demonstrated his ability to create character and to interrogate a landscape. Despite the pages and pages of description scattered throughout Reservoir 13, I rarely encountered a really vivid line or phrase. The writing is precise and accurate, but not very imaginative, as this description of August in the village demonstrates: ‘August was hot and slow. The seed-heads of cow parsley and thistle blackened in the field margins, collapsing in the early dew. The river was clear and slow and the sun struck it hard. There were brown trout teeming thickly through the water.’ I read this alongside Sarah Perry’s wildly creative The Essex Serpent, and I’m afraid it suffered for it.
And in all these words, Reservoir 13 still doesn’t have very much to say about the loss of a child, or the psychological impact of a person gone missing for a long time. Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex lingers in the novel but has little impact upon it. Readers hoping for a missing-person plot, or even an exploration of its aftermath, will, like other readers, be disappointed.
I received a free proof copy of this novel for review. It’s out in the UK on 6th April.