Book Review – Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor

Harper Collins

GBP 8.99

‘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.

For other book reviews featured on my blog please see

A Gentleman in Moscow

The Underground Railroad

Hungering for Success

I imagine Michael Phelps looks pretty strange to kids; a pair of ordinary legs are overshadowed by that looming torso. Slabs of granite muscle are decorated with thudding veins, all tucked into an impossibly small waist. Likewise Chris Hoy, whose skinny torso contrasts with thighs that could suffocate a fully grown highland cow. And look at Frankie Dettori. At five-foot-four inches and eight stone, if he were anywhere other than on the back of a horse he would be at best a curiosity, at worst a laughing stock.

All of them are scarred by their sport, marked by perseverance, pockmarked by passion. I’m no different, so when the kids snigger and point at me from across the street, I shrug it off. How could they know? How could they appreciate the sacrifices I’ve had to make? I’ve broken barriers. I’ve trodden ground previously untouched by boot or trainer. When fellow competitors whisper tales of derring-do, of impossible feats, it’s me they whisper about. Why would I look like others, when I am so much more?

Leaving the titters and the mutters behind me, I ease myself off the bus. The plaza is already crowded, and I’m asked to autograph a couple of programmes. As I get closer to the main tent, I’d like to say that the spectators part in awe as I approach. They part, sure enough, but it’s out of necessity – no-one wants to get it the way of my stomach. Here though, there is context. Here my stomach is my pride, my living, even. Here fans blow out their cheeks in admiration instead of laughing into their hands.

I enter the tent into a low thrum of anticipation. My fellow contestants are already seated, their piggy eyes on me. I’m the daddy, the don, the pacesetter. There’s no time for hubris, though. It’s focus that’s got me where I am and focus that will land me the title again. Like any athlete, I know my numbers. Eight hours of fasting before the competition, one litre of water in the morning to swell my stomach, seven pies in seven minutes, each five inches wide and one-and-a-half inches deep.

I sit down, close my eyes and breathe in. The day my mouth doesn’t water at the smell of shortcrust pastry, pie-meat, and gravy is the day I know I no longer have it.

As always folks, I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts/comments!

Clean Lines

Matthew J. Richardson

Clean Lines

When people asked Clement what he did for a living he would say ‘I’m a painter.’ Artist sounded too grand, artiste more so. He was these as well, though.

Clement didn’t believe in labelling. Artists shouldn’t be boxed in; they shouldn’t be categorised. If he were put into corner, Clement would say that he ascribed to the Ligne Claire style. Clear, strong lines directed the viewer’s attention exactly where he wanted it to be.

Not that any serious art critic would insist upon labelling Clement. That sort of nonsense was reserved for the uninitiated, the dour. People like his parents. Lots of money to be made in medicine, they’d remark casually back when Clement had been doodling in his notebook during maths lessons. Have you thought about learning a trade, they’d ask delicately when his grades failed to improve.

This was where Clement belonged. Here, there were always people queuing to see his work. On a busy morning, two thousand people an hour would be ushered past his paintings, each admiring his simple colours, his bold shapes. A shout brought him to. Swigging the last of his coffee, Clement acknowledged his gaffer with a wave. The roar of morning traffic was dulled to a low hum as he slipped his ear muffs back on. Back in the cab, a look out of the window told Clement that he was still in line. Down went the paint lever. Down went the handbrake. To his right, traffic weaved around the bollards, but behind him, straight down the middle, straight as an arrow, ran white rectangles. Like a piece of art.

As always, all comments welcome. See my published work HERE

Exploration and Sterilisation: Research

Surgical

I know, I know. Research isn’t the sexiest part of writing. It isn’t sitting in a Paris café with a cigarillo hanging out of your mouth, and it isn’t battering away at a Sholes and Glidden typewriter in a converted shed. However, unless you are writing the flashiest of flash fiction, or scribbling on a subject with which you are entirely conversant, most narratives will require a level of research.

The [copious] gaps in my knowledge should have been highlighted in the pre-planning stage of my writing process. Some pieces, like THE PREDATOR, will require less research – we’ve all been in a bar before. Others, like WATAN, will require substantially more. I certainly haven’t flown a kite on the rooftops of 1960s Lahore before, and to write as if I had without research would result in a story lacking in authenticity. Research adds weight to a piece when used appropriately. It gives a writer confidence that they know their subject, something that will be immediately apparent to a reader.

I research my work in four main ways:

  1. Journal articles

Fantastic if you have access to a university library or similar. These have the benefit of being targeted; if you want to write about a subject, odds are that someone will have written a journal article on it. This was certainly the case for WATAN. I was able to research Pakistani immigration into Scotland with ease and got access to the statistics I needed quickly. There is a certain skill in searching for suitable journals, not too dissimilar to hash tagging effectively.

  1. Books

The most obvious and best resource available to writers. Charles William Eliot said, ‘Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.’ Unless reading for pleasure, remember that your research book is there to serve your writing. Use indexes, use contents pages. It’s not cheating to dip in and out of a book for research purposes. At present I am reading Robert Graves’ ‘The Greek Myths’ for a story. Although immersive, it is perhaps not practical to read and annotate all 784 pages for the purposes of a 2,000-word short story. Read well and read with a purpose; the better your source material, the better your writing will be.

  1. Travel

‘Write what you know’ is perhaps too cliched a piece of writing advice, but its sentiment has solid foundations. If possible, visit the place you are writing about. I am writing a story set in a Scottish port called Mallaig at present and have booked a weekend away with my wife. This will hopefully allow me a sense of mise en scene, thereby doing Mallaig justice. I know from experience that the trip will also provide me with those anecdotal nuggets that are gold dust in fiction – the smells, tastes, and impressions that are impossible to garner from the comfort of your writing desk.

  1. Interviews

If you haven’t experienced what you are writing about, then the next best thing is speaking to someone who has. Odds are that if they consider the anecdote worth telling and you find it worth listening to, then it will translate well into a story. I had the good fortune to attend a writing group with a gentleman who had grown up in Lahore and who was able to add to the authenticity of WATAN. Going the extra mile and speaking to someone with experience in your subject area will undoubtedly show through in your final piece.

To finish, I’ll discuss one thing I try never to do when researching. If I am writing a ghost story, I won’t read Susan Hill whilst I’m writing it. If I am penning a piece of crime flash fiction, I’ll avoid Raymond Chandler for the duration of the process. Why? Because their styles will inevitably bleed into my writing, resulting in a depressing parody of an author I admire. Read other genres? Yes. Read research? Definitely. But I steer away from polluting my train of thought with other authors’ work. I see research much as a surgeon would their scalpels and clamps – keep them sterilized to avoid cross-contamination between styles.

As always folks, I would be delighted to hear about your creative processes.

Previous posts on my process are below.

Igloos in the Tundra: Idea Formation

A Skeleton to Flesh Out: Pre-planning

Froth

Good morning fellow scribblers,

A wee bit of flash fiction in response to the prompt above: Froth

Froth

Froth

Matthew J. Richardson

‘What is that?’

Mark looked up from the pint he was pouring.

‘I said, what is that?’

Sharper this time, the woman raised her eyebrow and gestured at the glass in his hand.

‘Your pint, madam,’ Mark answered hopefully, placing the drink in front of her and wiping his hands on his trousers. He had a sinking feeling. The woman had looked like trouble as soon as she had walked in. Dressed up to the nines, platinum hair, lacquered nails, she had sat down at the table furthest from the bar with her rugby-buff boyfriend before striding up to order like she owned the bloody place.

‘It’s an absolute disgrace, that’s what it is.’ Fake eyelashes raked him as she spoke. ‘Look at the head on it. If I’d wanted to spend a fiver on foam I’d have stayed at home with a bath bomb.’

For a moment, Mark thought she was joking. A glance at her ramrod-straight mouth told him otherwise. He felt the heat rising in his face.

‘Sorry. I’ll get you another.’

The woman sighed and took out a lipstick and compact mirror.

‘This is what happens…,’ she began, before pausing to reapply lipstick. ‘This is what happens when someone starts a job straight from school.’

Mark glanced up as he began to pull the pint. He realised that she was speaking to her six-foot-something partner, who had the good grace to give him an apologetic glance from his seat in the shadows.

‘What were you, the only village idiot left at the jobs fair?’ She looked around her at the otherwise empty pub. ‘Not exactly rushed off your feet are you?’

He decided that silence was the best policy. It was only his third shift, and the manager had nipped out to get herself something to eat. He hoped that the woman wasn’t paying by card, otherwise he’d have to wait until Julie returned to authorise the payment.

‘For Christ’s sake!’ shouted the woman, pointing at the glass in his hand. ‘Hold the bloody thing at an angle. I’d be quicker home brewing at this rate. Start again, and this time bloody concentrate.’

Mark could feel sweat on his upper lip as he tipped the half pint down the sink. The glass slipped from his hands, smashing on the porcelain. He kept his head down as he searched for another.

‘Absolute joke,’ said the woman, shaking her head ‘Tomorrow evening, why don’t you join the rest of your friends at soft play? Less chance of you breaking something, that way.’

His fingers found another glass. Past the point of embarrassment, Mark stood and began to pour a pint for the third time, this time staring sullenly into the woman’s eyes. It seemed as if she could no longer even bear to look at him. She was drumming her fingernails on the bar and staring at the ceiling. Probably a prissy city cow, thought Mark. Thinks she’s doing us a favour by gracing our pathetic little establishment. She would have had to brace herself even to speak to country bumpkins like him. The last drops of ale dripped into the foam. Mark pushed the beer pint towards the woman, who looked at it as if the bartender had just offered her a pint of his own piss.

‘I suppose that will have to do. How much do I owe you?’

‘Two-sixty.’

The woman shook her head as she handed over a ten-pound note. As she did, a receipt fell onto the floor by Mark’s feet. He bent to retrieve it.

‘Hurry up, can’t you,’ urged the woman. ‘Hard as it is to believe, I have no wish to endure a lock in with someone who still has pimples.’

Mark did not answer. He did not respond at all. Written on the back of the receipt in bright, pink lipstick, were six words.

 

Ex found me. Get help pls.

 

Slowly, mechanically, he opened the till.

‘Your change.’ For a moment their eyes met, but only for a moment. ‘I think you might be right about the beer, madam. I’ll nip down and see if the barrel needs changed.’

Almost imperceptibly, her shoulders sagged.

‘See if you can’t find someone who knows what they’re doing behind a bar, whilst you’re down there.’ She was snapping again, tones clipped and eyes flashing.

Mark opened the trapdoor and climbed down the ladder. As he descended, scraps of conversation reached him from above.

‘Sorry about the wait, darling…bartender was barely out of nappies…said the barrel needed changed…sorry if it’s not quite right…’

In the cellar, Mark’s face was illuminated by his mobile phone screen as he dialled.

 

 

***As always folks, comments welcome. See my published short stories HERE***

24-hour National Domestic Violence
Freephone Helpline

0808 2000 247

 

via Daily Prompt: Froth

 

 

Hand on Heart

Hand on Heart

Hand on Heart

Matthew Richardson

It’s one of those slow awakenings, moving inexorably but imperceptibly through the stages of consciousness as a sunrise does bars of colour. I can still feel sleep tugging at me, urging me to come back under. A long, luxurious stretch under the covers only serves to remind me how comfortable I am. My eyes remain closed.

It is the smell of her perfume that pulls me towards consciousness. I can feel her watching me. I let my hand trace down under the duvet, searching for skin that does not belong to me. She is watching, anticipating where my fingers might touch first, nervous. My knuckles creak from lack of use as I travel further below.

There. What elegance. What beauty. Lazy a second ago, my fingers are suddenly deviant, exploring at will. Bound under bandages, I can still feel the eight inches of scar tissue running down the centre of my chest. My ribcage rises and falls under its own volition. I’m still here.

It seems like an insurmountable effort to open my eyelids, but I manage. Even through the tubes and the breathing apparatus, I knew I could smell her perfume. My eyes close again, but it’s all right. She’ll still be there when I wake again.

 

As always, any feedback or comments are most welcome!

 

A Skeleton to Flesh Out: Pre-planning

flexible-mini-skeleton

 

Good morning fellow writers,

After idea formation, the next stage in my writing process is what I call pre-planning. This takes place once I have a nugget of an idea. What I am trying to achieve is a skeleton; something to which I can later add flesh.

I am the first to admit that I am something of a bureaucrat when it comes to writing. I like structure. I like a plan. I am not one of those gifted authors who can knock out a 3,000-word, pre-formed story in one sitting and who never has to touch it again (more’s the pity!). Dour as it sounds, I use a pro-forma document at the start of each of my projects, an example of which is below.

This is a direct lift from the planning for my short story ‘Watan’, which was written in 2015 before being published by Literally Stories in 2016. This is in no way prescriptive but helps me to understand what I need to research and organise in order to write my story. I take no care here with grammar or syntax, spelling or spacing. This is a working document, and not one which will ever be seen by anyone (pre-blog, at least!).

Title

 

Convenience Store (working title)
Length

 

4000-5000 words
Location

 

Deprived Glasgow housing estate
Time

 

Modern day
Timespan 20mins
Narrator

 

1st person narrator – one sided verbal conversation.
Themes

 

Depression, immigration, poverty, crime, deprivation, responsibility
Characters

 

Asian shopkeeper-has relatives back in Pakistan whom he supports

Local drug addict

Synopsis

 

Story is one half of a conversation between an Asian shopkeeper and a drug addict (not clear at start state of customer or establishment-make it appear as though it is posh). He takes the customer through his options re alcohol in a servile manner, gradually coming down from fine reds etc to a bottle of buckie. Similarly with tobacco, as it becomes clear that the customer is a scumbag with the shakes. Shopkeeper becomes increasingly dry and bitter as he contrasts his lifestyle of hard work with the self-indulgence and myopic nature of the addict. Addict then pulls a knife and the shopkeeper shuts begins an increasingly aggressive monologue aimed at the addict. He drives the point that the addict has only targeted him because of his perceived ‘otherness’, yet the shopkeeper is far more imbedded in Scottish society than him. Reveal shopkeeper’s journey to Scotland and his history in Pakistan. Emphasise that whereas the addict is alone due to his problems, the shopkeeper has connections throughout Glasgow, and that any robbery will be swiftly avenged. Addict panics and runs off. Sirens are heard as the shopkeeper returns to menial chores.

 

 

 

Research

 

BOWES, A; J MCCLUSKEY; D SIM (1990) “The changing nature of Glasgow’s ethnic-minority community”. Scottish Geographical Magazine, 106(2), 99-107

Bailey, Nick; Alison Bowes, Duncan Sim (1995) “Pakistanis in Scotland: Census Data and Research Issues”. Scottish Geographical Magazine, 111(1), p.36-45

Hamid, Mohsin (2008) The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Great Britain: Penguin

Sidhwa, Bapsi (ed) (2005) City of Sin and Splendour-writings on Lahore. London:Penguin

My pre-planning document serves three main purposes. Firstly, it forces me to focus upon some of the more prosaic elements of the piece. Sometimes it is easy to become fixated upon plot to the detriment of location, character, or narrator. As I work my way down this document, I am obliged to consider each aspect in turn. This makes me consider the effect that each has upon the story itself, so that I repeatedly ask myself ‘How will this work?’. How can I convey a robbery using first person narrative? How can I include the protagonist’s history in a short story encompassing twenty minutes? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it highlights the research still necessary for the project. In the case of ‘Watan’, I was writing about post-partition Pakistan and a culture with which I was not conversant. A lot of research to do here, then!

Many writers find this part of the process mind-numbingly boring. They are keen to get stuck in and put their foot down on the word count pedal. For me, this is where I have the most freedom – I can do anything at this stage. Change the narrator from third to first person? No problem. Move the plot across continents? No sweat. This process is so important to my writing precisely because it allows me to play around without the shackles of a first draft; I am untethered by plot, unhindered by work I have already completed.

It also serves a third and slightly more psychological purpose. No matter how many times I hear William Wordsworth’s ‘To begin, begin,’ I always hesitate before starting to tickle those keys. I get the same sensation before writing on an exam paper, a feeling that the wind hasn’t really caught in my sails yet. That is why I find it helpful to have my pre-planning up on the left of my screen as I start to type or research. It is my skeleton, and if it does nothing else, it gives physical form to my project. It might sound incredibly boring to those writers who value instinct and intuition over cold, hard planning, but I find great comfort in the banality of fleshing out that skeleton!