Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor | Book Club / Book Club

29th March 2018

Reservoir 13

For this month’s TOAST Book Club we review Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. We hope you will take part in our online book club and leave a comment below.*

Jon McGregor is an audacious writer. In an age where narrative in the most popular works of art often proceeds at a breakneck speed, he has chosen to defy this. Reservoir 13 (2017) is his first novel for thirteen years and like his debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002), it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Reservoir 13 also won the Costa Novel Award for 2017. It managed this feat in spite of his use of the passive voice and the utter absence of dialogue in the novel.

Reservoir 13 begins with an apparent hook: a thirteen-year-old girl has gone missing in an unnamed Derbyshire village. Thirteen reservoirs surround the village and the book is divided into thirteen chapters. Each chapter spans a year and it seems reasonable to expect that, by the final one, we will have discovered what has happened to the girl. As years pass, however, those who knew her don’t necessarily inch any closer to discovering the truth. They realise that “The photo on the news never looked right, but it had replaced the image of her they’d held. She was being lost all over again.”

There is a brutality in the way the passing of time seems to obliterate her. The villagers nonetheless dream of the missing girl, amidst their own unfolding dramas – the local butcher has to close his shop, a couple with twins struggle, the local vicar takes a leave of absence, a pensioner falls out with the neighbour who walks his dog. Placing these everyday crises centre stage feels radical, unsettling even and McGregor has said “I wanted this to be a book about the passing of time and routines of life, the dailyness of life”.

Extending his focus beyond human life, he also writes beautifully of fierce dramas in the natural kingdom: “In the beech wood the foxes gave birth, earthed down in the dark and wet with pain, the blind cubs pressing against their mothers for warmth.”

Human rituals are placed within the context of nature: “On the rug the whippet kicked her back legs, dreaming of sprinting across fields. In the quarry by the main road the small coppers were mating again. There were swallows nesting high in the barn, the eggs glossy white and speckled red beneath the fluffed feathers of the mothers. In the woodland by the river the bluebells were massing. The clay for the well dressing was cut from the wet end of the Hunter’s land, and carried up to the village hall.”

There is that sense which Auden wrote about in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts, that personal disasters can occur “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just/walking dully along.” From the opening page, when search parties for the missing girl find “their tracks fading behind them as the heather sprang back into shape,” we witness how fleetingly people make an impression on the landscape around them.

The rituals of the village (well-dressing, local cricket matches, harvest festival and Mischief Night) are either adhered to or dropped as McGregor repeatedly subverts our expectations. There is pleasure to be taken in having our narrative assumptions resisted like this and there is an unshowy truth in his delineation of relationships that sometimes work out but often don’t.

The honesty in his depiction of sexuality is similarly often poignant and discomfiting. An isolated widow expresses lust obliquely and even then regrets it, reflecting, “She didn’t know why she’d said anything. People were surprised. Thought if you were sleeping alone your blood had stopped circulating. Thought if you were not capable of exciting a man’s attention there was no excitement left in you.”

Although the narrative shock occurs at the very beginning of this novel, this is not a story without danger or violence but it is of the everyday, utterly believable kind. The novel reads like a meditation on time and though there are inevitable anti-climaxes in a narrative such as this, there is no other way McGregor could have written it, if he wanted to be true to life.

The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. This review was written by the literary critic Alex Peake-Tomkinson. The book club exists in a purely digital space and we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.

*All those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win one of our natural soy wax candles.

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  • Hmm . I’m sorry but it did nothing for me. I’ve continued it to the end but I didn’t feel I cared about any of the characters (in fact many were rather similar and I forgot who they were) , I found the impact of the girls disappearance odd as she was not known to the community (except conveniently to the young – and yet she was a visitor) and the end was a damp squib. I really felt the need for some sort of denouement or at least hint of what had happened.

  • Im a third of the way through the book. It’s caught me off guard, the writing style is not fluid yet I find myself continuing on. Living in a rural Yorkshire community the blend of seasons and life is something I can relate to. Its different and immersive.

  • Vanessa Austin Badoor

    This really sounds like my kind of book. The other comments only serve to make me more determined to hunt it out.

  • I read this book as part of a book group and enjoyed it. I found it drew me in and due to it’s gentle, mesmerising style I found it to be a page turner. It captured the atmosphere of living in a village (as I do) and the way that people’s lives are half known to others and that there is always a wider backdrop of sadness and tragedy in any community. To me the narrator was a benign presence that held the book together and was a truthful chronicler of the lives of those in the community that is being described. The book does not have the usual plot twists that one might have come to expect, however, it is richer for this and truer to life.

  • Cynthia Shebbeare

    I love the way the author plays on the reader’s anticipation. At every visit to the reservoirs or cutting back of the hedges, we expect the girl’s body to be found. There is also a sense of guilt among the villagers: we are reminded that “she was looked for” repeatedly as the seasons and the years roll by with their rituals and the humdrum activities and minor life events. The name of the village becomes synonymous with tragedy, just as we know it does in the worst news stories. Even those who manage to leave the village cannot escape its history. The reactions of strangers remind them of their connection to a place tainted by tragedy.

  • I have just finished reading this book. It wasn’t the read I thought it would be. The descriptions of ordinary life are mesmerising. He captures the sense of time passing so precisely. It’s a wonderfully evocative book.

  • On my to be read list now

  • This will be my next read.I have just finished “My Absolute Darling”,which was another recommendation from you at Toast HQ.It was at times fascinating and disturbing,but a compelling read.I wouldn’t have chosen it for myself,but it challenged my thoughts about abusive relationships.The characters were sensitive and horrendous ,it certainly was a thought provoking book that will stay with me for a long time.

  • Recently read this and loved the repetitions in it. I found I looked forward to hearing about the badgers, the local cricket match, the new year fireworks each year. Also enjoyed reading about the teenagers growing up and leaving home. Very true to life. I’m sure I will be rereading this book.

  • Yes I will be reading this …. my daughter gave me ‘if nobody speaks of remarkable things’ for my birthday ‘ as a change from the modern women writers I tend to read..a welcome and refreshing change

  • I’ve been listening to this novel on Radio 4 and downloaded a copy to my Kindle.

  • Thanks – the review really made me want to read this book. I’ve recently read the Unseen by Roy Jacosen, and the way the themes and writing are described reminds me of it. If it’s as good a book as that, I’ll be happy.