Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 begins with the disappearance of a teenage girl named Becky who was with her family spending the winter holidays in a small English town. From that premise, you might think you know what to expect. You’re probably wrong.

McGregor doesn’t focus on the investigation, the suspects, or Becky’s history, although all of those elements appear. Instead, he dwells on everyday life in the town and how it continues to go on, season after season, year after year. People think and worry about what happened to Becky, but that tragedy is just one of many events. Over the years, people are born, people die, relationships begin and end, Becky’s peers go off to university and return. Life continues.

I’ve admired Jon McGregor’s writing ever since I read Even the Dogs. His short story collection is one of my favorites. He always writes well, and he tends to look at familiar narratives from a new angle. He takes that to an extreme in Reservoir 13, and I found it absolutely hypnotic.

Each of the book’s 13 chapters begins with the dawn of a new year. Here’s the opening of chapter 8:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks in the rain, and thunder in the next valley. The rain broke over the hill like a wave and blew straight into people’s faces. The river was high an thick and there were grayling in number feeding on the caddis larvae and shrimps. In the morning Ian Dowsett was out with a new box of flies and having a job to keep his footing in the current as he dropped the weighted nymphs into the water. Susanna’s ex-husband appeared again, and this time the altercation was seen.

The structure of the book creates a sense of time’s cyclical nature, which McGregor emphasizes by making note of the changing seasons and the village rituals. And those cycles are echoed in many of the book’s characters, with certain routines happening again and again, but with variation from year to year. The feeling is that everything both stays the same always and keeps changing always. And as I think about it, that’s kind of how life is. We continue with the same routines until something happens to shake us out of it. It’s not always possible to know what that routine-shaking event will be, and that event won’t be the same for everyone.

The book’s massive number of characters does pose a challenge. I found myself wishing I’d kept notes on who was who because I kept forgetting. And by the time I realized how helpful a list would be, it felt like it was too late to start. So I settled into the idea that the book is not so much about each individual character’s journey but about the village as a whole. Looking at the village as a whole, we see how little really does change. All of the instability exists at the individual level. I’m not sure what to make of that, but the tension is interesting to ponder.

With four Booker contenders left to read, I’m putting this at the top of my personal shortlist. It’s not a book I’d expect everyone to love, but it totally worked for me.

I received an e-galley of this novel for review consideration via Edelweiss.


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