Booker longlist reading: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

by Sunita

One of my favorite aspects of Man Booker season is that I learn about books and authors I’d not heard of before. This year there were fewer of those finds, but this was a stellar one. McGregor has written several other books and is admired within the UK literary community, but he hasn’t really broken out in the US that I can tell. More shame for us, because this is an amazing novel. The Guardian has two excellent reviews which provide slightly different interpretations but agree on the quality of the work.

Reservoir 13 is nominally a mystery, in that it begins with the disappearance of a girl at the New Year. She goes off for a walk with her parents and vanishes. The family has been on holiday in a village in the Peak District, a place they’ve been coming for years, and the village rallies all its efforts to try and find her. The media descend and the intensive search throws a spotlight on the place and its people. For a while. Then another story comes along and the spotlight recedes, reappearing intermittently when new information comes to light or there is an anniversary. Meanwhile, the village residents go about their lives, touched to greater or lesser degrees by the event.

The book comprises 13 chapters, each representing a year since the disappearance. We get to know a dozen or more of them as they are born, die, move into or away from the village, get married and/or divorced, lose their jobs, and grow older. Their backstories emerge over chapters, which means the reader can feel a bit at sea at first. But keep reading and you learn a lot about them, and at least for me, by the end I felt enmeshed in the village and its life.

As I was reading it occurred to me that McGregor’s novel resembles a 19thC one in its emphasis on the quotidian and the deep incorporation of not just human relationships but natural ones. I think every paragraph in every chapter includes descriptions of the natural world, e.g., the birth and migration of birds, the badgers in their sett, the flow of rivers at different times of the year. There is no differentiation, either in substance or style, between the human actors, animals, and nature. It’s not a romantic view, either. Some readers are going to find the style very detached, which I suppose it is, and the long paragraphs, lack of dialogue markers, and paragraphs and chapters which are structured by time rather than theme may be off-putting. Here is an example from one paragraph (the full paragraph is about twice as long, as it’s one of the shorter ones):

The sound of the water over the weir came up to the village in staticky bursts, shifting and faltering on the wind as though the volume was being flicked up and down. Thompson’s men led the first of the herd into the milking parlour, each cow finding her place and dropping her head to the feed-tray while the men worked along the line and cleaned the teats. By the river the keeper cut back a willow, and as he took off another branch he watched the trail of sawdust drift downstream. The curl into a back eddy. The drop and sweep across a shallow fall. There were footsteps on the path and he set to the next branch. There was always plenty of work. At school the police came and spoke to Liam and James and Lynsey about any involvement they’d had with the missing girl. New information had been provided regarding the family’s stay at the Hunter place the summer before she’d disappeared. The interviews were handled sensitively, with the parents present at all times, but they led to trouble for the three of them at school. No further action was taken. They all three acknowledged spending some time with the girl that summer, but denied even knowing she was around over the Christmas period. They had no useful information to share. The police thanked them for their time and apologised for any distress which may have been caused. The clocks went forward and the evenings opened out. The buds on the branches were brightening.

I was fully immersed in the story by the third chapter and found it hard to stop reading. Even though the characters’s lives were related indirectly, I kept turning the pages to see how they were doing. I started looking for the birds and the badgers and whether the river was going to overflow this year. As a reader I always felt as if I was standing outside the village, or viewing it from above, but I was completely invested.

This isn’t a village cut off from the world at all, but the world impinges on it indirectly. Economic and social issues affect the villagers’ lives and fortunes, and people move away to bigger cities just as they do all over the world. The teenagers keep track on Facebook and other social media platforms and everyone has a mobile phone. Somehow, McGregor evokes the timelessness of humanity and nature while grounding the story in a concrete present.

The book doesn’t have a big finish; it just stops. Some lives and relationships are at equilibrium, others feel as if they will have several forks in the road before they smooth out. I told a friend that I could have read another 25 chapters relating 25 more years of the life of this village, but McGregor leaves us in a good place.

Reservoir 13 was the second longlist nominee I read, and I wondered how any other book was going to top it for me. Then I read Autumn. I can’t say Autumn is better; it’s just as accomplished and rewarding but in a different way. I’m very glad I’m not a Booker judge, because I’d have a real dilemma and I’ve only read three of the longlist so far.

Reservoir 13 is released in the US on October 1.