‘There were dreams about her walking home. Walking beside the motorway, walking across the moor, walking up out of one of the reservoirs, rising from the dark grey water with her hair streaming and her clothes draped with long green weeds.’
Reservoir 13 is Jon McGregor’s fourth novel. It is extraordinary.
Rebecca Shaw is thirteen years old when she disappears on a family walk on the moors. Walking behind her parents, one minute she is there, the next she is not. Villagers rally around to search for the child, fanning out around the reservoirs and prodding through the undergrowth.
It is tempting for the reader to slip into the whodunnit mind frame, but that would be to miss the point of McGregor’s narrative. The girl is not found, not after a week, not after a month, not after a year. What follows is a forensically beautiful exploration of grief seen through the lens of a small village. The inhabitants move on, as they must; teenagers mature, marriages dissolve, and feuds escalate. All of these events are however set against the backdrop of unresolved tragedy.
McGregor uses beautiful, simple language. Huge, rambling two-page paragraphs do not serve to stilt the pace, but rather build a rhythmic, seasonal repetition. Each chapter starts at the new year bells. We follow a plethora of characters through the rural year, their tribulations interspersed with updates on badgers, foxes, bats, and swallows. This relentless changing-of-the-seasons heightens the tension of the piece and mimics the small-town claustrophobia threaded through the novel. What is left unsaid is as important as what McGregor chooses to commit to copy. Characters’ motives are often left only partially explored, tantalising the reader with the question ‘could it have been him/her?’
The time frame in which the novel is set in allows McGregor ample time to develop his characters. This development is particularly poignant in the case of the four teenagers who were briefly friends with Rebecca. We watch them dream, stumble, and finally accept their differing roles, becoming accustomed to grief and guilt in their own ways. The greatest achievement of the novel is to lull the reader into equating characters’ idiosyncratic worries and tribalisms with an undoubted tragedy. People move on; they must, and as such Rebecca fades into the background of village life, swallowed into folklore like so many other events.
A novel like no other I have ever read, and one which will stay with me.
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