Thursday, 5 March 2020

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor - Breaking the 'rules'

I found Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’ an utterly absorbing read: a teenage girl disappears near a moorland village and a whole community is affected, in the immediate aftermath and in the years to come. The mystery of her fate underlies the stories of the novel’s many characters, whose lives and experiences change and develop along with the seasons and the surrounding landscapes.

The novel is also interesting because of the way the writer skilfully violates the standard advice frequently offered to amateur writers of fiction. There are no paragraph divisions, the points of view and locations often alter swiftly, within the space of a page, and the direct speech is not conventionally presented, but integrated within the narrative. The third person narration often describes events, people and topography from a distant, ‘bird’s eye’ view, then swoops in nearer, to reveal individuals, their relationships, their voices and their internal lives. The characters’ separate story lines are variously linked to the girl’s disappearance, the passing years measured by the distance since the event.

Here is an extract from Chapter 1, which illustrates some of these features. The people in the village are still greatly affected by the disappearance of the girl.

At the butcher’s for May Day weekend there was a queue but nothing like there once would have been. Nothing like the queue Martin and Ruth needed to keep the shop going. Martin had been keeping this to himself, although it was becoming obvious and nobody asked. Irene was at the front of the queue telling everyone what she knew about the situation at the Hunters’. She did the cleaning there, and knew a thing or two. You can imagine what it’s like for the girl’s parents, she said. Having to watch us all down here just getting on with things. Ruth saying but surely the village couldn’t be expected to put life on hold. Austin Cooper came in with copies of the Valley Echo newsletter and laid them on the counter. Ruth wished him congratulations, and he looked confused for a moment before smiling and backing away towards the door. Irene watched him go, and asked if Su Cooper was expecting. Ruth said yes, at last, and from the back of the queue Gordon Jackson asked would there be any chance of getting served before the baby was born. 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 break-through is that, Gordon said. The swallows returned in number, and could be seen flying in and out through the open doors of the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s and the outbuildings up on the Hunters’ 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………… 

This section presents a wide range of elements of plot, setting and characters, slipping from straight narrative into free indirect speech then to sudden changes of topic and location: Martin’s awareness of his failing business, the personality of the village gossip Irene, the Cooper’s fertility problems, the progress of the police investigation, Gordon Jackson’s personality, the wider countryside and seasonal village activity.

These devices create a rich and compelling picture of the lives of the inhabitants of a village community and the cyclical nature of country life, as well as an intriguing mystery which stretches over thirteen years.