Much like the writer of this blog, Jon McGregor is not prolific in terms of output: when published in spring 2017, Reservoir 13 was his first novel in seven years, and only his fifth since first being published, at the age of 26, in 2002. Yet, it was followed just a few months later by a companion volume, the scripts (written by McGregor) for what was originally a BBC Radio 4 series (sadly, no longer available) and casts sets fresh light on the events set out at the outset of the main novel. The expectation – and indeed the cost – of a comparative lack of output is that what does come out must be complex, well thought-out and profound. Thankfully, McGregor doesn’t let us down (as indeed his palmares indicates) in this lyrical, deeply affecting and elegiac work.
The premise of Reservoir 13 is the contemporary disappearance of a 13 year-old girl, ‘Rebecca, or Becky or Bex’ who appears only fleetingly as a character but whose mirage and whose elusive presence continues to haunt over at least the next thirteen years the Peak District village from which she was staying for a New Year break, with her disappearance continuing to reverberate through the lives of the villagers. (We might debate the significance in the work of the number 13, and it clearly has significance here, although it doesn’t appear to play any particular role in resolving its mystery.) In the Tapes, which explores events in the period leading up to Becky’s disappearance and immediately afterwards, she does appear in her own right and is revealed as a teenager possessed of a wilful, rebellious and youthful, somewhat insolent, devil-may-care streak.
The work itself is divisive since its lack of resolution will be off-putting for a large percentage of readers (not this one) in search of all ends being tied up. This is not a straightforward crime novel, or a thriller, in which we find out ‘whodunnit’ or in which we discover what happens. Dear reader: much like life itself, I’m afraid we do not. What we do have instead is two halves of one work, very different stylistically, which do not seek to provide an ending but which do aim to deliver solid and evolving characters and to tell its story in a way which gives the reader plenty of clues as to what might have happened to Becky.
In Reservoir 13, McGregor tells his tale in a rigidly structured way: each of the 13 chapters deals with the year subsequent to Becky’s disappearance, devoting two or three pages to a month-by-month, single paragraph resume of the quotidian, cyclical events in the village – the New Year fireworks, the Spring Dance, the well dressing, the cricket match against a neighbouring village, Harvest Festival, Mischief Night and the Christmas panto – and set, cheek-by-jowl, with descriptive writing of annually-recurring natural developments involving foxes and badgers; goldcrests, buzzards, blackbirds, herons and crows; butterflies and springtails; produce from the allotments, bracken and brambles; sheep, cattle and baling. The effect of this carefully-layered repetition is hypnotic, and it sets the evolution of the relationships between McGregor’s substantial dramatis personae, running (even in partial form) to some eighty characters, and who, in all the messy foibles of human lives, fall in and out of love; have affairs, or try to; arrive, drift and depart from the village; work, open and close businesses; bear children; get drunk; fall ill; and grow old. The events in the characters’ lives are dealt with in each segment in just a couple of short, almost diary-like sentences as part of the work of nature and which take place to the same, remorseless rhythms and routines and calendar. The voice is entirely passive and, consequently, dialogue is reported rather than spoken. In spite of the manner of the telling, McGregor has an eye for a neat turn of phrase and there is occasionally explosive use of humour which not only leavens the evolution of the rhythms of the tale but also allows its central characters not only to live but breathe.
Meanwhile, the Tapes features succinct and revealing vignettes of the lives of 15 (not 13…) of the characters and which, in contrast to the novel, do so on the basis of individual stories told in a more straightforwardly active way and whose witness is, of course, informed both by self-interest and sometimes venal considerations alongside sometimes more altruistic ones. The focus in the Tapes on individual voice fractures, but does not break, the collective voice which inspires the approach to the writing of the earlier novel.
Both halves comes together in a mutually-enriching narrative to set clues, highlight motives and menaces, and raise suspicions about individuals who might know something or who might be somehow implicated in Becky’s disappearance; or whether, indeed, there might be an alternative explanation which has little to do with human involvement, the far from innocent character of the environment and a rural setting being often malign to those who do not understand the dangers of a pastoral hillside whose detail often appears hidden.
Thus it is not only the lack of resolution but also the manner of the telling that will divide readers or leave them feeling, as McGregor himself has commented, ‘hoodwinked’. In this same interview, McGregor spoke of writing Reservoir 13 out of sequence and piecemeal, re-assembling the pieces written about characters and nature more or less as a collage – a particularly interesting comment on the creative process and McGregor’s own abilities as a writer given that Reservoir 13 is exclusively a linear work. Patience on the part of the reader with the lack of developments in Becky’s disappearance itself will be rewarded in the enjoyment of a well-observed tale of great beauty and imagination of how we interact with each other.
Readers bring to a complex novel their own understandings and it is this that will inform how they measure its worth – and this is as it should be. For me, this is a work about loss, of course, but also of leaving – apparently two sides of the same coin in several respects, but one which marks out that all the things we do and say, and the way we live our own lives, have profound and sometimes tragic effects on the lives and characters of all those who become involved with us, however fleetingly. We are all interconnected and the essential lesson is that all of us need to call to mind more often the implications of our actions and words on others. The human gift for violence – of thought, word or action – is indeed a repeated one; as, also, are the small kindnesses and thoughtful tendernesses which, in contrast, bind us together. All of us are vulnerable, endangered beings, whatever the face that we put to the outside world and we need to have greater respect for that. As Editors once sang.