Summer is here, which means once again I am going to try to complete Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer Challenge.
You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult to read and review twenty books over three months … and yet.
I think a couple of years ago I just about managed five.
Hey, man, I’ve had stuff to do.
Anyway, this year I’m determined to get at least halfway.
Although the book reading is cutting into my Twin Peaks viewing
Lots of bloggers are taking part, and they’re dreadfully organised, having already selected the books they’re planning on looking at, and in which order.
Honestly, have they nothing better to do with their time? I don’t even know which socks I’m going to wear until roll out of bed and pick them up off the floor.
*checks socks – sees that they’re not a pair. Gives James Dean-like shrug*
No such nonsense from me. I don’t follow no rules, mister.
So this year, I’ll be choosing my books as I go along, beginning with …
RESERVOIR 13 by Jon McGregor
The girl had been looked for; in the beech wood, in the river, in the hollows at Black Bull Rocks. She had been looked for at the abandoned quarry, the storage containers broken open and the rotting freight wagons broken open and the doors left hanging as people moved on down the road. They had wanted to find her. They had wanted to know she was safe. They had felt involved, although they barely knew her.
Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a lyrical novel spanning thirteen years, encompassing a large cast of characters and events in an unnamed village in the Peak District of England.
A quote from Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is the novel’s epigraph: “The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying”
The jumping off point is the Christmas-time disappearance of a 13-year-old girl, and the first few pages might make the reader think they’re in for a crime novel. But the disappearance of Rebecca Shaw, which hovers over and haunts the novel, is not what the book is interested in. Instead, McGregor is interested in the rhythms of life: births, deaths, marriages, job losses, school days, first sexual awakenings, and so on.
More than one critic has compared it to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and the two share a certain theme – that life, all life, is of equal importance to a community: so the comings and goings of birds, the blooming of flowers, the tilling of fields, the first frosts of winter and the newborn lambs of spring are given as much importance as the doings of the village’s human inhabitants.
The novel is made up of thirteen chapters, one for each year (it begins around 2001), and each chapter devotes a few paragraphs to each month. Cycles are repeated. Flowers bloom. Sheep are rescued from snowdrifts. The clocks go back, The clocks go forward. Birds migrate at the beginning of winter. School terms begin and end. There is a panto every year (although it’s postponed after the girl’s disappearance). There is an annual cricket match against a neighbouring village, Cardwell (which Cardwell always wins – when the village finally beats Cardwell, nobody can quite believe it). In October teenagers play pranks on Mischief Night; one character, Irene recalls that many years before, as a boy her late husband had hidden a whole herd of cows – she mentions this to whoever is within earshot every year. It’s a little moment among many such in the book. Taken on their own, these asides and observations appear tedious, but there is a quiet, cumulative power at work here, slowly revealing a fully-realised world.
McGregor’s pace is slow, steady, and never falters or opts for sudden shock. A character dies; another is born; both events are reported dispassionately. There is frequent use of the passive voice, something McGregor has commented on, that its use is ‘very English’ and very important in a gossipy community.
The passive voice was really deliberate because it just feels very English to me. It’s a gossipy village, but they would never think of themselves as gossips. ‘Somebody was seen.’ They’re not going to say: ‘I saw so and so.’ Small communities can be very inclusive, but they can also be very claustrophobic.
Interview: The Guardian
And there is a lot of gossip. Small towns and villages tend to be close (and closed) communities, and Reservoir 13 is the sort of book where strangers are noticed and talked about, and where there are long-held grudges.
Concerning the disappearance of 13 year-old Rebecca Shaw (who, crucially, unlike Twin Peaks‘ Laura Palmer, is not actually a villager – her family spend holidays in the village), the incident is mentioned many times in the book, most often in the first year, and soon the girl’s name becomes remembered as ‘Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’ as people struggle to remember what exactly she looked like (there is a photo of the girl but it’s not considered a great likeness; similarly, there is a TV reconstruction but the actress is taller than Rebecca was). Was she abducted? Did she have an accident and fall off a cliff or get lost on the moor?
People dream that they have seen her. Or they see someone who reminds them of her. Or they see someone that they think might be her.
At night there were dreams about where she might have gone. Dreams about her walking down from the moor, her clothes soaked and her skin almost blue. Dreams about her being the first to reach her with a blanket and bring her safely home.
McGregor doesn’t labour the point at all (this is a novel where little is ever laboured, in fact: McGregor is most definitely not a heavy-handed writer, and generally a bird in the book is just that, a bird, not a metaphor), but the constant fact of Rebecca’s physical absence but her continued presence in people’s dreams is, I think, symbolic of the villagers’ own fears, ambitions and desires.
The novel has a huge cast of characters, and McGregor’s sometimes-simple prose can make Reservoir 13 read like the outline for a long running rural soap opera – although no soap opera writer would probably pen lines like ‘blindweed trumpeting through hedges’, ‘the days were berry-bright’, or ‘Frank Parker experienced the brief turmoil of being offended and grateful at the same time.’
The book opens at the end of December with villagers searching for the missing girl, even as some doubt she’s in trouble while others fear she’s had an accident.
She’s likely just hiding, people said. She’ll be down in a clough. Turned her ankle. She’ll be aiming to give her parents a fright. There was a lot of this. People just wanted to open their mouths and talk, and didn’t much mind what came out.
The girl’s parents are staying in a converted barn in the Hunter place. The Jackson boys are tending to their sheep in the hills. School term starts: the heating isn’t working well: eventually the boiler will be replaced, but for now the clanky old boiler room also serves as a refuge for the caretaker, Jones, who is presented as a cantankerous old sort who fancies some of the younger female teachers.
There’s a group of teenagers who organise their own search party (echoes of The Famous Five): as the novel progresses, these kids will grow up, fall in and out of love, go to college (or not), and one will later reveal a secret about Rebecca. McGregor could probably have focused on these kids and nobody else and would still have written a fine coming-of-age novel. There’s a first kiss:
Lynsey came back first and she wouldn’t look either of them in the eye. She pushed Liam out of the way and got the fire going properly. She kept touching her lips. Sophie was gone for longer and when she came back the two girls walked away quickly, holding hands. Deepak came through the trees and crouched by the fire and in the wavering light his eyes were dazed.
And a first drink:
They sat on the pavilion steps and drank the wine, and they asked each other if it was working yet. None of them quite knew how they were supposed to feel … there was an unexpected warmth in the air and they stumbled against each other more than once. Their voices were louder than they realised.
Eventually, the villagers will grow bored of the investigation into the girl’s disappearance, and will be anxious for life to return to normal, but not before the chance to encounter the girl’s mother, who attends church services.
She arrived just before the service began, escorted by the vicar to a seat in a side aisle which was kept free for her, and left during the closing hymn. There was an arrangement. Jess Hunter sometimes waited for her in the car outside. People understood they were to leave her be. When it came to the sign of the peace she shook hands briefly, with a smile that some said seemed defensive and others too as grateful.
At times the book can drag a bit, and you wonder where McGregor is going with all the details, building layer upon layer, developing the characters, revealing back stories and secrets, betrayals and lies. But Reservoir 13 is a book that gets under your skin, and you’ll find yourself rooting for some characters not to mess up their relationships or their jobs.
A sample of some of the characters’ thoughts about life. When one woman’s son gets a new girlfriend:
She might not be as pretty as the other one, his mother told Cathy, but I can at least pronounce her name. She seems nice enough. And she’s black of course, but I haven’t a problem with that.
A middle-aged pair rekindle their young love:
They wanted each other in a way he had forgotten was possible or perhaps had never really known. He felt restless unless he was fitting his body to hers. When they’d done this as teenagers, high on the far side of the hill overlooking Reservoir 12 and the motorway, the two of them had felt weightless, lifting each other into the air and whispering. Thirty years on they both had more substance but there was no less delight. Her body weighed down on his and he gave himself up completely and only now did he realise how often he’d held something back before.
And you’ll marvel at the sturdy, contemplative tone of much of the novel’s nature scenes:
In the beech wood the foxes gave birth, earthed down in the dark and wet with pain.
There was more rain on the way, or worse. A cold wind blew shadows across the reservoirs and on the higher ground a flurry of thin snow whirled against the top of trees. The goldcrests fed busily deep in the branches of the churchyard yew.
Throughout, the figure of Rebecca Shaw persists in the minds of the villagers,
Dreams were had about her, still. There were dreams about her catching a bus to a railway station and boarding a train which ran out of control and hurtled off the rails. There were dreams where she ran down to the road and met a man with a car who took her to a ferry. Dreams where she ran and just kept running, to the road, to the bus station, to a city where she could find enough places to hide. There were dreams about finding her on the night she went missing, stumbling across her on the moor in the lowering dark and helping her back to her parents. In the dreams the parents said thank you, briefly, and people muttered something about it being no problem at all.
This brilliant novel takes a sadly familiar tale – the disappearance of a child – and uses it to ask how can we get on after a disruptive event disturbs the peace and flow of daily life?