Reservoir 13

Set in our own day in a village in England’s Peak District, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 opens with searchers assembling to look for thirteen-year-old Rebecca Shaw, last seen out on a walk in the countryside with her parents, who had somehow lost sight of her. It is year’s end, and the family has been spending the holiday in the village, a place surrounded by hills and moors, marshy areas, watery ravines, caves, abandoned lead mines, quarries, and reservoirs — all possible sites of misadventure. And, of course, there is always the thought of abduction and foul play. Rebecca has been gone for hours, then days. Divers are called in to search the river and reservoirs. The media descends with all its paraphernalia and presumption.

At this point it is only right to say that if you are expecting a missing-girl thriller: don’t. This extraordinary novel is a different and much greater affair. As the pages turn into weeks and months and years, our attention — along with that of the villagers themselves — never drifts entirely from the girl and her possible fate; but the everyday goings-on around the place, of the people and, equally, of the creatures of nature, come increasingly into focus and begin to take over. Blackbirds, swallows, butterflies, foxes, badgers, and other beasts, birds, bugs, and even vegetation, are shown following their annual cycles regardless of human drama.

The villagers eventually return to their own traditional round of activities: the New Year’s celebration, the Spring Dance, “well-dressing,” Mischief Night, Bonfire Night, sheep tupping, lambing, and so on. But at the same time, the village is following a larger, by-now familiar course: It is dissolving under the corporate rationale of late capitalism. The new owners of the adjacent great estate do not hold themselves responsible for the upkeep of public amenities as the original owners had and have hired lawyers to prove it. The butcher shop cannot compete with the new supermarket, and the owner loses the business, along with the knives that were his father’s before him. His wife leaves him, and he is reduced to working at the supermarket’s meat counter. (“They gave him a striped apron and a badge saying “Master Butcher,” but it wasn’t butchery. The meat came in ready-jointed, and he was just there to hand it over.”) The dairyman is increasingly pressed and depressed by the low price of milk. The village youths grow up to find there are no jobs.

The novel unspools, becoming a mural in time depicting the changing lives of these people over a dozen or so years, but the continuing question of Rebecca’s fate gives the progression a dark tincture. Events are reported in a detached, almost hypnotic manner, the story becoming an intoxicating distillate of gossip. The adolescents who had known Rebecca form and reform into couples; they grow up, go away, come back. The girl’s parents stay on, the father roaming the countryside, ever searching; the marriage breaks up. Protesters come from afar to block the blasting out of another quarry. They set up an encampment that flourishes, fades, disappears. The village Don Juan discovers he has lost his irresistible appeal; his brother breaks off his affair with a young schoolteacher and marries the mother of his son; they have another child and eventually separate again; the school caretaker is charged with downloading child pornography. The divers show up year after year, reviving the memory of the search for the girl’s body in the river and reservoirs, though now they are unclogging spillways and making routine checks of the dams for structural deterioration.

Unadorned and tightly controlled, the style possesses plain-spun eloquence, and for all its bland affect and austerity it conveys a lived feeling of the rhythm of things in the village. Here, for instance, is what happens when there is blasting at the quarry:

When the first siren sounded over at the quarry the workers cleared the area. When the second siren sounded the birds fell silent. In the village, windows and doors were pulled shut. The third siren sounded, and the birds rose in the air, and the explosion came from deep behind the working face, spreading through the body of the earth, a low crumping shudder that shrugged huge slabs of limestone to the quarry floor. The dust rose and continued rising and drifted out through the air for five minutes or more. The first all-clear sounded, and the birds returned noisily to the treetops. The second all-clear sounded, and the workers returned to their places. In the village, the windows and doors were kept closed as the dust spread. On the bus back from town Winnie saw Irene and asked whether she’d had her hair done. Irene’s hand went up to her head, although she hadn’t meant it to. She told Winnie it was only the usual.

This style gives plenty of scope for the sort of inadvertent, deadpan humor that is the special province of police logs and committee-meeting minutes. (“Miss Dale asked Ms. French if her mother was any better, and Ms. French outlined the ways in which she wasn’t.”) In fact, despite the novel’s grim start, it is leavened throughout by wry humor. (“In an attempt to meet the county council’s target for budget cutting, the parish council agreed to the street lighting being turned off between midnight and five, not without much discussion, during which Miriam Pearson was advised that the expression black hole of Calcutta was no longer acceptable.”)

I have never read a book quite like this, a novel whose stark, declaratory sentences are so vital, whose overall plotlessness is so completely absorbing, and in which the universes of nature’s creatures and human beings are so powerfully presented as inhabiting the same world, though running along parallel courses, oblivious to the other’s concerns. McGregor’s previous novel won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and I truly hope this one achieves a similar honor.



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