“Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor: all in one’s nature

When thirteen-year-old “Rebecca, or Becky or Bex” goes missing from the National Park (probably Peak District) village where her family has been staying, police, helicopters and volunteers are deployed to comb the area, with frogmen searching the nearby numbered reservoirs, all to no avail. Ordinary life goes on, but even more than a decade later people continue to speculate as to what may have befallen her, and the story of her disappearance is sufficiently well known for the young friends who knew her in the village to be quizzed, much to their discomfort, when they go off to university.

As I believe has been the case in his early novels, Jon McGregor seems less concerned with the conventional plot-line of revealing how and why a crime occurred, and more interested in the relationships between his characters, in this case so numerous that it repays the effort of making a note of them from the outset, since they will all reappear at some stage.

In a kind of low key but subtly gripping soap opera, laced with insights, inferences and flashes of humour, he portrays couples getting together, splitting up, sometimes reconciling, people gaining and losing their jobs, dealing with the problems life brings, struggling to communicate, finding themselves, or not. The village customs, farming and surroundings are described in minute detail, on one hand the man-made activities of quarrying and reservoir maintenance which change continually, but also the closely observed world of nature with its seasonal rhythms, as indicated by the continual repetition in the book, and the “red in tooth and claw” violence involving foxes and badgers which goes unpunished, in contrast to the human world where people can only escape justice by concealing it.

I’m not sure whether Jon McGregor spends a long time experiencing the natural world or has done a great deal of research, but there are many beautiful, poetic passages. “The sun didn’t set so much as drift into the distance, leaving a trail of midsummer light that seemed to linger until morning”. “A heron hoisted into the air, hauling up its heavy wings, and letting its feet trail out as it flew” and so on.

Some readers may find the repetition of activities and phrases unendurable, and on occasion I was irked by yet more springtails (insect-like organisms) burrowing into yet another piece of rotten wood, and the reference to yet another “well-dressing”, clearly a tradition that could not be allowed to lapse. But I could see that all this was deliberate and necessary to convey the reality of life as time passed, just as each short section had to be written without paragraphs or speech marks, to avoid disrupting the flow of one’s concentration.

Jon Mcgregor is also very skilful in sustaining the tension, and sense of anticipation. Every walk in the woods with Nelson the dog, or drop in the level of the reservoir, could reveal some vital piece of evidence about Becky, which could of course be tantalisingly missed, or even lead to discovery of a body. His insistence on ambiguity may be hard to accept, but is again an aspect of real life. It also allows the reader who “wants to know what happened” to speculate on the clues gleaned.

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