Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 begins with a premise most will have encountered before; 13-year-old Rebecca Shaw has gone missing in the rural English countryside on New Year’s Eve, leaving no trace behind. Village inhabitants, police, and journalists swarm the landscape, while search parties and police divers struggle to find evidence of her whereabouts. But as interest in the missing girl dwindles, the focus of the novel rapidly expands outwards and uses this starting point as a backdrop from which to explore the lives of those tangentially connected to the mystery of Rebecca’s disappearance.
The blurb of the novel speaks of its depiction of “the repeated human gift for violence,” a theme treated with deft accuracy and an affecting yet passive curiosity. Human violence is confronted consistently and unemotionally; there are numerous suggestions of domestic violence and microaggressions: a pillar of the community is arrested on child pornography charges, and a bout of arson goes unsolved. However, a strength of the novel is that more is learned from what is unacknowledged than from what is said.
McGregor exercises an economy of words and great control over his sparse prose. The omniscient and uninvolved third person narrator thus leaves space for his characters to expand and fill the page. This novel certainly necessitates a willingness in the reader to fill in the blanks as McGregor could not be accused of over-explaining. The overall format of the novel’s thirteen chapters is regimented as each recounts the events of a full year until the anniversary of Rebecca’s disappearance comes around once again. However, within these chapters, there is a lack of structure and limited paragraphing. Who the narrative is focused upon shifts with every few sentences. McGregor creates the impression of a bird’s eye view of the town that is not particularly personal or emotional in nature, but by virtue of the events, it details still manages to exert investment and tension within its readership.
Reading Reservoir 13 is to experience being completely immersed in the community of the anonymous Peak District village. In interviews, McGregor speaks of how “normal life intrudes on even the most heightened moments,” and his novel certainly develops this theme. While from the outset the novel’s structure may give the impression that the text is regimented and stiff, it is, in fact, the opposite. McGregor’s work is fluid, rhythmic and naturalistic. It is certainly a unique read.
Illustration: Katie Butler