Book Review: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

What’s it about?

A teenage girl has gone missing while on a New Year holiday in a small village in the heart of England. Search parties are organised, roadblocks are set up, and the moors are combed for signs of what happened to her. Yet life must go on, and this is the story of that quiet village over the next 13 years.

My thoughts

This is a work of quiet brilliance, and I have never read anything like it. It’s an astonishing study of humanity and village life, set down in rhythmic prose that rises and falls like waves on a reservoir. I particularly loved the way McGregor intersperses village life with the change in seasons, blurring the lines between the people and the landscape they live in: “Swiftly along the river and down the lanes the adult bats flew in deft quietness and were gone by the time they were seen.”

The breadth and depth of the story is impressive. The book has thirteen chapters, each covering a year in the village. I’m not sure how many characters there are, I didn’t stop to count, but they all have their own paths and their own stories. At the beginning of the book, I felt a little lost in the sheer volume of characters and detail, but gradually, bit by bit, I got to know the characters and the story shifted into clearer focus. Much like as if I’d actually moved into the village.

As readers, we’re constantly waiting for the girl, Rebecca, to be found. In the standard canon of missing person literature (if there’s such a thing), the missing person is found, and there is a neat conclusion. McGregor knows this, and inserts references to the reservoir maintenance crews out diving and fixing. Is she in reservoir 7? Or 10? Or one of the caves riddling the area? Or is there a reason the book is called Reservoir 13?

Yet this is not a crime novel, it’s a study of life and loss. I get the impression it has been marketed as a crime novel, and I think if you were expecting it to be so, you’d be disappointed. It is, however, chilling- the missing girl is always there in the back of the story, adding a darkness to the everyday- just not in a thriller way. It’s more hypnotic than that.

Would I recommend it? 

Yes, I would. It really reminded me of growing up in a village, how everyone knew everyone else’s business, and how word of an illicit affair would be juxtaposed with news that the swallows were back.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is published by 4th Estate, priced £8.99.

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