by Jon McGregor (2017)
In April the first swallows were seen, swooping low over the pastures in the early morning and taking the insects which rose with the dew. And still the sound of a helicopter clattering by was never just the sound of a helicopter but everything that sound had once meant.
Reservoir 13 is set in a village in the Peak District. As the novel opens, just before New Year, a 13-year-old girl, holidaying in the village with her parents in a barn conversion, is reported missing, and the police organize the villagers into a search party:
They gathered in the car park at the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top. A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard. They were given instructions and then they moved off, their boots crunching on the stiffened ground and their tracks fading behind them as the Heather sprang back into shape. She was five feet tall, with dark-blonde hair. She had been missing for hours. They kept their eyes down and they didn’t speak and they wondered what they might find. The only sounds were footsteps and dogs barking along the road and faintly a helicopter from the reservoirs.
The novel then unfolds over 13 chapters, one for each of the 13 numbered reservoirs in the surrounding area, each chapter set over a year in the life of the village.
The set-up would suggest a crime novel, but that isn’t McGregor’s intention at all. There are, admittedly, seeming breakthroughs (see the excerpt below), revelations (characters who know more of the girl’s movements and motivations than they told the police), tantalizing hints (most notably when a dog being walked by one character, Cathy Harris, finds an item of clothing which the reader but not Cathy recognizes as possibly worn by the girl) and the odd ominous note (lots of mentions of reservoirs, quarry pits, and a rather odd loner of a school caretaker — one could imagine spooky background music in a film version), but actually — no spoiler alert needed as there is nothing to spoil — we end the novel none the wiser than when we started it.
Instead McGregor uses this set-up to create a wonderful collage of a rural community.
The passing of the seasons in each year is marked by the annually recurring rituals of village life: fireworks at New Year, the Spring Dance for charity, Well-Dressing at midsummer, the annual cricket game with the neighboring village which is seldom won, Harvest Festival, Mischief Night which gradually morphs into a more American-influenced Halloween, and the Pantomime.
But McGregor gives equal attention to the rhythms of the natural world — crops, flowers and trees — and wildlife — foxes, badgers, swallows, and herons.
A breakdown truck came slowly down the narrow street with a red LDV Pilot van hoisted on the back and a police car following. The van was wrapped in clear plastic. Martin wiped his hands on his apron and stepped outside to watch it pass. Gordon came out with him and lit a cigarette. Martin nodded. That changes things, he said. Fucking breakthrough is that, Gordon said. The swallows returned in numbers, and could be seen flying in and out of the open doors at the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s, and the outbuildings up at the Hunter’s land. The well-dressing committee had a difference of opinion about whether to dress the boards at all this year. Under the circumstances. There’d never been a year without a well dressing that anyone could remember. But there’d never been a year like this. In the end it was agreed to make the dressing but to keep the event low-key. There were sightings of the girl. She was seen by Irene, first, on the footbridge by the tea rooms, walking across to the other side. Quite alone she was, Irene said. Her young face turned half away and she wouldn’t look me in the eye. Gone before I went to her and I couldn’t see which way she went. I knew it was her. The police were told, and they went searching but they found nothing. There were lots of young families in the area that day, a police spokesperson said. But I know it was her, Irene said. There was rain and the river was high and the hawthorn by the lower meadows came out foaming white. The cow parsley was thick along the footpaths and the shade deepened under the trees. Stock was moved higher up the hills and the tea rooms by the millpond opened for the year. In the shed Thompson’s men were working on the baler, making sure they knew when the time came for the cut. The grass was high but the weather had been low for days. The rain on the roof was loud and steady. The reservoirs filled.
The outside world by contrast features little. We see simply background scenes glimpsed on the TV screens of natural and man-made disaster — floods, earthquakes, fires, explosions — but the only time the villagers take a particular interest (one keen fund-raiser for worthy causes aside) is when there is a similar missing-girl cases in another area. The novel is rather conveniently set in the years between two key political events — the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 has passed and the 2016 Brexit vote is yet to come — and the only political marker is a passing mention of the Bedroom Tax.
McGregor introduces us gradually to a large cast of characters in the village — some rate a passing mention, others we come to know well — and their own personal dramas and interactions. [One minor criticism, in passing, would be the lack of much by way of inter-family alliances and rivalries of a type that often arise in small communities.]
Perhaps my favorite character was Gordon Jackson, one of five sons of Jackson the sheep farmer, who has the self-assumed role of village lothario — gradually and deliberately seducing many of the village women, married, widowed, divorced, young or old, most notably a women and a decade later her daughter — but actually in search himself of a relationship and always disappointed at how brief each affair proves:
He was never forward. He waited for situations to arise. He’d been waiting for Susanna for years. A quick conversation, a joke, an offer of help. Eyes. But he never said anything. That wasn’t him. He was careful in a way he didn’t need to think about. He never made a suggestion, never put himself in a position where there could be a refusal. It was the refusals that got talked about, had always been his sense. The ones who went through with it had more of an interest in being discreet. He only had to steer the situation towards a possibility until the possible became likely and the likely a done thing. A good sheepdog never needs to bark was how he thought about it. He looked at Susanna now. It had taken time but she seemed interested at last. She was looking out of the window and she had that thoughtful face. He wanted to lean over and kiss her neck but he held back. She was a fine looking women and he’d been watching. She’d been on her own a long time and he’d found himself thinking of breakfasts in her kitchen, nights in front of the TV.
But while absorbed in their own personal dramas, the village can never fully escape what happened 13 years ago. We follow a group of local teenagers of the same age as the missing girl as they grow up and go to University, only to find that all their acquaintances there immediately want to ask about the drama. The quote that opened my review comes from the last chapter, almost 12.5 years after the girl went missing.
In April he first swallows were seen, swooping low over the pastures in the early morning and taking the insects which rose with the dew. And still the sound of a helicopter clattering by was never just the sound of a helicopter but everything that sound had once meant.
A wonderful novel — modest in its scope but all the more powerful for it — and one I very much hope wins the 2017 Booker as it is a welcome anecdote to the rather overblown self-satisfied novels that have won in recent years. As McGregor himself has said, he’s “allergic to trying to make points in fiction.”