“It had been more than six months and still there was nothing. No footprints, no clothing, no persons of interest, no sightings on any security camera. It was as though the ground had just opened up and swallowed her whole. Journalists used this phrase by way of metaphor or hyperbole; people in the village knew it as a thing that could happen.”
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, Jon McGregor’s “Reservoir 13” is an eerily, elegantly, quiet novel. Ostensibly about the disappearance of a young girl in a quiet English village, this novel is really the story of the village itself. No one character gets primacy; all are handled evenly and even-handedly. The text is written with no quotation marks, no paragraph breaks between subjects. The primary structural markers are the oft-repeated or minimally reworked refrains that open and close each chapter, marking another year, the turn of calendar.
“The clocks went forward and the evenings opened up and the days stood a little straighter on their feet.”
Never have I read a book written with such an air of narrative remove. McGregor keeps the reader at arms length, offering simple, dispassionate description, telling the story of one small village and its many residents over the course of decades. McGregor’s treatment of all of his characters is delicate, respectful, and truly lovely. Despite, or perhaps because of, their remove, the people of this small town feel real, their ‘quiet lives of desperation’ feel true. Neither they nor McGregor come across as being aloof. They are simply living their lives, unaware of any overarching narrative or the possibility of a reader silently watching, judging them. This intricate novel is a wide-lens, closed-circuit film.
There are several places throughout “Reservoir 13” in which the feelings or thoughts of the characters stand in for or mirror the novel itself. For instance, the local vicar is a gentle observer and collector of people’s stories and pain, just as the reader is.
“She collected these confidences from people, and carried them around. It was like piling rocks into the boot of a car, she told her dean once, and sooner or later there are too many rocks and the suspension bottoms out each time you hit a bump in the road. He smiled and told her he knew it was difficult. He prayed with her, and she kept carrying the rocks around.”
Another character describes to his young sons how the area reservoirs were made by flooding existing villages.
“Cooper explained that there had once been villages down there, that all the reservoirs had been made by flooding the valleys. They looked at him, waiting to see if he was joking. The world didn’t always sound right when it was first explained. There were a few in the village still who could remember the river spilling its banks behind the newly built dams, a slow seeping over that didn’t seem capable of filling the valley in the way the engineers had promised, each day a little higher, the outlines of the demolished villages being lapped over by the waves and the dam making more and more sense until by the time the Duke came to ceremonially open the sluice the water was pouring over the top of the wall.”
This book, this subtle, persistent narrative, is like those reservoirs. It is built quietly, gradually, almost imperceptibly. At first you are taken by a pretty but rather unremarkable scene, a fairly forgettable tableau; but before you know it, you are flooded by its waters, rooted to your spot, a permanent (though silent) part of the narrative.
Thank you to Catapult for providing a complimentary Advance Reading Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.