This collection is an unusual one: it was written for radio rather than print. The BBC commissioned Jon McGregor to write a set of stories that together comprise a prequel to the sublime Reservoir 13which won the Costa Novel Award earlier this week, much to my delight. Unsurprisingly, given that was my book of last year, I was eager to both hear and read them. For those who haven’t read the novel, it explores the effects of the disappearance of a young girl on a small rural community over thirteen years – one for each of her life – rather like throwing a stone into a pool and following its ripples.
The collection opens with a reporter interviewing Becky’s mother. We only have one side of the interview and so must fill in Charlotte’s part for ourselves. What follows are fourteen stories – vignettes from the Shaws’ previous holiday in the village and the days around Becky’s disappearance – each told from the perspective of a different character. They range from a woman who once worked as a prostitute in the area watching the news and recognising a client to a young boy bullied by Becky, from a man who remembers another missing girl found almost by chance to a woman who recognised her own daughter in Becky’s demeanour. As McGregor says in a brief BBC interview, there’s no attempt to solve the mystery of Becky’s disappearance.
McGregor kicks his collection off brilliantly with the reporter’s interview in which we can almost hear the tearful, faltering, sometimes angry responses from Becky’s mother despite their absence from the page. Each piece has a distinctly individual voice: an elderly man, lonelier that he’ll admit, answers the police tersely becoming more garrulous in the hope that they’ll stay; the reporter’s insinuating, subtly judgemental false sincerity when interviewing Charlotte; a woman’s memories of being rescued from alcoholism by kindness. McGregor’s acutely observed characters all have their own stories – often interconnected – offering a nuanced portrait of a small community with its secrets and history, and the writing is all that fans like me would want it to be:
There were bees buzzing fatly in the foxgloves by the wall vividly summons up the summer heat
Sometimes you’d break things just to see what would happen thinks a character trapped in early parenthood
They’d seen her realising what kind of woman she would be, and playing with the part thinks a mother, remembering her own precocious daughter
For those of us who loved McGregor’s novel this is an additional treat to be enjoyed two ways. If you have access to it, the stories will be available through BBC iPlayer for a further nine months.
If you spend any time in the literary corners of Twitter you will have heard of Gabriel Tallent’s debut already. Lots of readers fervently singing its praises at every turn. I knew from the blurb that it would be a tough read but had no conception of just how gut-wrenchingly nerve-wracking. I nearly gave it up but Tallent’s writing is so compelling that I couldn’t leave it alone. It’s the story of fourteen-year-old Turtle who lives with her survivalist father in Northern California.
Turtle’s mother died when she was a toddler. She downs a couple of raw eggs every morning, tosses her father a beer and discourages him from walking her to the school bus. Martin is careful to abide by enough of society’s rules to avoid social services removing Turtle from him. She’s well-versed in survival skills, has her own gun – regularly stripped down and cleaned ready to fire – but she has no school friends and refuses to work at her studies. Her grandfather, Daniel, lives close by and tries to keep an eye on her, upbraiding Martin for the way he’s bringing the girl up, only to be met with abuse from the son who loathes him. Martin has systematically broken Turtle down and reformed her. She watches him carefully, wary of provoking him. She hates herself and everyone else, her head full of anger. Two events change the course of this twisted relationship: Daniel’s death which precipitates Martin’s abandonment of Turtle for several months, and her acquaintance with two boys, one of whom falls in love with her and takes her home. For a few short months, Turtle comes close to a normal family life. When Martin returns, bringing a ten-year-old girl with him, Turtle understands that she will soon be faced with a momentous choice.
Tallent tells Turtle’s story from her own perspective, wisely choosing a third person narrative rather than the first person the intensity of which would have been too much to bear. Martin’s psychopathic behaviour and stream of misogynistic abuse alternating with excessive professions of love have made Turtle mistrustful and vigilant yet incapable of withholding love from the only person apart from her grandfather who has shown her affection, no matter how perverse. Martin is a chillingly monstrous character yet carefully crafted to avoid the cartoon villain. Turtle is expertly drawn: a silent observer at school, constantly trying to decipher the codes of social behaviour. Tallent stretches his story taut with a series of graphic scenes which had me shrinking away yet unable to stop reading. When Turtle contemplates killing Martin, you can only cheer her on. Amongst the drama of the novel’s storyline are some beautiful descriptions of the natural world but it’s Turtle that keeps your attention. This is real heart in mouth stuff, unsparing of its readers. It ends with a much-needed possibility of hope.
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.