Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

I found "Reservoir 13" hard to engage with at first. This partly the (I suspect, deliberate) frustration of my expectations and partly the style in which the people and events are presented.


The blurb says

"Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss."

The book opens with a search across the hills of an English National Park, for a teenage girl who has gone missing. My genre-led expectations kicked in and I settled down to a book about crime and guilt and secrets in a small village, with the mystery solved in a few weeks, during which colourful local characters and traditions are scrutinised and set aside as the villain is uncovered.  I knew that the book was on the Mann Booker Longlist, so I was expecting some trope twisting but I wasn't expecting something that rejects every convention of a crime novel.


I quickly amended my view of what the book was about but still found it difficult to care about because the story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little dialogue there is, rather than using direct speech and describes people and events with all the passion of an academic wildlife study.


I felt that I was being given a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for reasons that weren't immediately clear to me. 


I recognised that I was being shown the rhythm of rural village life where people's lives are governed by the seasons, personal routines and the politenesses required by long-term propinquity but the rhythms did not provide a narrative thrust.


I felt locked out of the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. The authorial voice seemed to have all the intimacy of a camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.


About a third of the way through, I finally surrendered myself to the rhythm of the book and let it carry me along.  It reminded me of the adjustment in pace that I had to make when I moved to a village in Somerset after living for years in London. I had to slow down to see the place. I had to let it absorb me before I could be part of it.


"Reservoir 13" shows how life is lived in a village. As thirteen years worth of seasons passed, I was given a surface view of all the things that people in a small village know about each other: the gossip, the constant observation of each others acts and the things they don't say or don't ask. I cam to understand how the politeness of being indirect grants dignity and privacy while still offering the possibility of sharing the things you cannot bear alone.


Initially, direct speech was less frequent than descriptions of wildlife or weather but, as the years passed and the context had been established, I was allowed to hear certain conversations and evesdrop on interior monologues.


The people in the village are following the same tidal flows as the wildlife around them and, just as Il earned about the courtship of badgers in the woods, I was shown that most human mating rituals are led by women and conducted through body language and eye contact more than words.


Some characters found their way into my affections: the vicar, carrying around everyone's cares and confidences, like heavy stones in her pockets, who brings comfort and compassion wherever she goes; the woman who walks her neighbour's dog every day but still treats each time as if it were something new.


The missing girl is not the centre of the book but rather something that distorts the flow of village life without adding to it, She is like a water-logged piece of driftwood that only occasionally surfaces but is always there, disturbing the peace of the water.


She has her own leitmotiv that often marks her appearance


 "The girl's name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for and she hadn't been found."


She is a constant reminder of the possibility of loss and perhaps and incentive to hold on to those we love for as long as we can.


"Reservoir 13" has a distinct voice and an unusual structure that did, eventually, imprint the village on my imagination and made me reluctant to leave. The narrative doesn't thrust, it shapes your perception of people and events with gentle persistence, like a stream eroding one bank and building up another.