Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

This is a strange book. It starts like a typical whodunnit with the disappearance of a teenage girl who is on holiday in a northern village, maybe in Northumberland, but then we never find out who the murderer was, supposing there was one, because the body is never found. The book develops into a slow moving account of life in the village punctuated by the seasons, the flow of nature and the comings and goings of the people who live there. There are ten years of this, described obliquely and often through minutiae.

This is also a village full of people who behind their country reserve are unable to express a meaningful emotion. People have difficulty connecting with one another and the impact of the girl’s disappearance resonates down the years. Old people grow old, young people grow up, go to university and return, and some people simply seem to disappear.

What makes the book intriguing is wondering who the killer is. There are several suspects; a dodgy man with a van, the school caretaker, the young boy who knew the girl better than he ever admitted and a few others. However, the reader isn’t given many clues.

The countryside is constantly described, largely as red in tooth and claw. Foxes, badgers and butterflies feature disproportionately. The reservoirs, a large number of them, are bleak impositions on the landscape which have drowned the past. There is a quarry dynamiting the present and a protest camp resisting plans for the future. After ten years, I began to find the recurring cycle of the seasons slightly hard work and I couldn’t enthuse about the mating badgers and what this year’s pantomime was or even the result of the annual cricket match against the adjacent village.

Then the book stops without resolution or redemption. No one finds a body and no one is arrested. There is a sense that the slow decline of the village and the increasing industrialisation of the landscape and commercial tourism are irresistible forces but there is no indication of where it will end.

The book won the Costa Prize for Fiction in 2017 and you can see why in its brooding quality, a terse style with short unexplored and undeveloped sentences, and the power of its natural observation. If I was a blunt, taciturn northern sheep farmer I think I might feel slightly stereotyped at times but the characters provide enough interest to keep you reading. For myself, I would have liked more of an ending but it’s an interesting and stylish ride.

See also my Explorations section… for a little hommage!


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