Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: Life goes on…

Cover image Regular readers may remember that I kicked off my Blasts from the Past series with Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin. I love his work – so much so that it’s hard not to gush when writing about it, particularly as this new novel seems to me to be even better than the ones that came before. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life.

Rebecca Shaw, sometimes known as Becky or Bex, goes missing over the New Year holiday when her parents are renting a holiday cottage. The villagers assemble in the freezing cold, anxious to find her, all too well aware of her danger. Despite searching in every possible place, she’s not found. The media descend, the police continue their investigations and Rebecca’s parents hunker down in their rented barn conversion. Speculation is rife. The first year ends with respectfully muted New Year celebrations. The villagers get on with their lives, nature continues its annual cycle but no one forgets what has happened. The second year sees the media still present, the villagers still concerned, still dreaming about the lost thirteen-year-old but hoping the limelight will shift elsewhere. After the dramatic events of its opening chapters, little happens over the years McGregor’s novel chronicles but the effects of the girl’s disappearance continue to be felt, steadily diminishing yet ever-present.

This is such an accomplished novel. The rhythms of the natural world and village life hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives: foxes mate; herons fish; snowdrops appear; badgers cub deep inside their setts; the parish council meets and minutes are taken; the boards are prepared for well-dressing and the almost inevitable annual defeat of the cricket team is played out. Each year small details of the characters’ backstories are stitched into the village tapestry; hopes of love are raised and dashed; children are born; parents die; teenagers leave home; crimes and misdemeanours occur. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl, sightings of her father, rumours about her mother, mentions of other girls whose disappearance might be linked to hers in the news. All this is delivered in McGregor’s gorgeous yet understated prose. Hard to pull out quotes without filling the entire review with them but here’s a flavour: ‘Everything that might be said seemed like the wrong thing to say. The heating pipes made a rattling noise that most of them were used to and the mood in the room unstiffened’; ‘A soft rain blew in smoky clouds across the fields’; ‘The nettles and cow parsley came up in swathes, the bindweed trumpeting through the hedges’. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

37 thoughts on “Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: Life goes on…”

  1. I have this on my TBR pile and it sounds a bit like Midwinter by Fiona Melrose, which I have just finished, so I think I will allow myself a bit of a break before I read it. But thank you for a very enticing review.

    1. I haven’t read Midwinter although it’s on my list. So pleased to hear that Reservoir 13’s on your pile – the writing is sublime.

  2. I saw McGregor speak at Greenbelt Festival some years back, the same year that we had So Many Ways to Begin as our Festival Big Read (I led the book club discussion). That’s still the only book I’ve read by him, but I’m so keen to read this. You’ve given the perfect, appealing introduction. I have it on my Kindle but the problem, as always, is making the time…

    1. I’m sure you’d love this, Rebecca. It has that same quiet, graceful pace as So May Ways to Begin. I imagine McGregor was an eloquent speaker.

    1. Delighted to hear that, Ali. His writing is so lovely, both humane and beautiful. I do hope you like it.

    1. You’re welcome, Lisa. It was an absolute pleasure to read this book. I’m in danger of descending into hyperbole when talking or writing about McGregor’s work but I find his writing both moving and very beautiful but in a quietly restrained way. One of the finest writers we have in the UK.

  3. Do you follow his work at the “Letters” page? A beautiful collection of the letters has been published by Book Ex Machina – I have a copy but can’t bring myself to spoil the contents!!! Search it out to see what I mean. Jon McGregor a stunning writer.

    1. I don’t but from the link you send via Twitter I think I should! He is a stunning writer, and quietly so.

  4. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read any books by this author! What a wonderful review. Would you recommend starting with this book or with one of his earlier novels?

    1. Thank you! I think this one’s his best yet, Melissa, but I don’t think it’s available yet in the States so I’d suggest So Many Ways to Begin. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  5. I’ve heard you rave about Jon McGregor before, but still the only thing I’ve managed to read from him was his short story in “Sex and Death”, which I liked very much, although it sounds worlds apart from this story!

    1. I haven’t read his short stories which is a huge gaping hole I’ll be happy to fill as I’m now a short story convert! Absolutely loved this one as I’m sure you can tell.

  6. This sounds a wonderful read; I also love McGregor – there’s a scene in if nobody speaks of remarkable things that makes me tear up every single time. He has such a way with words, and the evocation of the natural world and its rhythms makes me think it is something I should definitely read. Lovely review, Susan.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. So pleased to hear that you’re a McGregor fan. I think this would suit your new approach to reading very well.

  7. Gush away – I’ll agree with every word! One of my favourite contemporary writers for sure. After reading this review I might even have to buy a brand new book, which I never do…

  8. I was intrigued by your review, as I’d never read anything by this author. Our state library system has only one of his books, which I’ve reserved.

  9. Thanks for the recommendation, I haven’t read any of McGregor’s previous work and it seems I’ve been missing something special – this has now jumped the queue to the top of my must read list.

  10. Pingback: The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor: Podcast in print | A life in books

  11. Pingback: 10 (or more) books on the horizon : BookerTalk

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