Author Jon McGregor

2017 Man Booker Review: Reservoir 13

13th September 2017

By Jill Glenn

‘They gathered at the car park in 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.’

The opening words of Jon McGregor’s latest offering might suggest a classic crime novel, but it rapidly becomes evident that Reservoir 13 has its own particular trajectory and preoccupations that fall into no easily classifiable genre. This is a slow burn of a book, that is less about what happens to Rebecca than it is about what her absence does to the lives of those left behind.

In that first paragraph, much that will shape the novel is already evident. ‘They’ are the inhabitants of a small village somewhere in the Peak District, whose community has been disturbed, and will continue to be disturbed for years, by the disappearance of this teenager on holiday with her parents in the middle of winter. Few of the villagers really know her, but they can’t get her out of their minds. ‘Her name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’ echoes repeatedly across the pages.

Also apparent in the opening lines is McGregor’s integration of the natural rhythms – weather, landscape, seasons – into the telling. A few sentences about the purchase of a vintage car (‘A 1968 Citroën DS with swivel headlights… the clean lines of the bodywork, the elegance of the silhouette…’) end with ‘He finished his tea and his toast and went to lift the bonnet’ and segue immediately, same paragraph, into ‘In their nest in the conifers the first buzzard chicks were hatching. The long days raised the hedges high.’ The whole novel is patchworked together like this, with real care and respect.

McGregor doesn’t forget Rebecca. He hints at possibilities; as readers, we’re always alert to anything that appears out of the ordinary, anything that might lead to the discovery of a body. Her absence haunts us as it does the villagers, certainly, but it’s also, for us as for them, pushed easily to the back of our minds; we become absorbed in the rhythm of their daily lives: births, romances, growing up, growing old, death. The ordinary, when told with the skill that McGregor brings to the task, is utterly beguiling. And yet, as soon as there’s a shift in focus – when children ask about the old lead mines, or when the out-of-bounds boiler house at the school is being demolished, or when the reeds are being cut, or when students on a sponsored walk are lost behind the cement works – our antennae are fully aware. Are we going to find out now? We follow the consequences of Rebecca’s disappearance over 13 chapters, 13 years, one for each year of her life. McGregor is nothing if not measured and precise.

He writes with compassion, and a powerful attention to detail. It’s what he withholds, though, as much as what he tells, that makes this such a memorable read.

Not a classic crime novel, then. But definitely a classic. Not a true thriller, either. But definitely thrilling.

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