In "Reservoir 13," Jon McGregor has written a beautiful novel, a book that I loved reading and that stayed with me for days afterwards.
The novel is set in the present in a small Yorkshire village. The first sentence immediately thrusts the reader into the middle of the search for Rebecca Shaw, an adolescent who has disappeared while visiting the village for a Christmas holiday vacation with her parents. As the story begins to unfold, the unsuspecting reader settles into the mindset of a classic mystery story with the vanished girl, various clues to her disappearance, suggestions of motives and perpetrators, search parties and helicopters, and the presence of TV news reporters, but McGregor soon pivots to an entirely different genre. By the third page, the missing person mystery quickly becomes a minor sub-plot, and we find ourselves immersed in a detailed 300-page description of the village, the people that inhabit it and the natural world that surrounds it.The changes that time brings to human beings and to the natural world around them are McGregor's focus, and he proves to be a superior observer and story-teller.
McGregor's language, imagery, and pace often feel more like poetry than prose, and the book feels like a combination of Edgar Lee Masters' classic poems in "Spoon River Anthology" and William Wordsworth's poetry about Yorkshire's hills. As in Masters' compilation of the epitaphs of the citizens of a small Midwestern town from 100 years ago, we come to know these Yorkshire villagers through the mundane details of their work, their families, and their backstories. Love and work, Freud's two cornerstones of life, are front and center as McGregor gradually adds layers over the course of the novel.
Parents, children, and siblings over three generations share family love, trust, and support or are deeply divided by resentment, distance, emotional frigidity, greed, hardship, or time. The Jackson family, their sheep farm, and their four sons appear to be a happy, prosperous bedrock of the village until the father has a stroke, the married son is divorced, and the two younger sons head off to Australia to pursue their fortunes. Martin, the town butcher, and his wife Ruth appear to have a strong and supportive marriage until the shop is foreclosed, and Ruth leaves to ultimately end up living with a woman in the village. Domestic violence, alcoholism, and illness take their toll, and the inevitable passage of time affects everything and everyone.
Interwoven amidst these stories of the lives of the villagers is McGregor's lyrical portrayal of nature in these Yorkshire hills. The river and the reservoirs rise and flood with torrential rains and dry up and fall with summer's droughts and heat. The bats, badgers, foxes, swallows, herons, and even the microscopic springtails in the compost court, mate, reproduce, hunt, eat, grow, and eventually give way to succeeding generations. It is a cycle that has been occurring for millennia before man came to this village, and it's one that continues as the backdrop for all of the human business and busyness that occurs in its midst. The seasons cycle through the chapters and with them the villagers' festivals, holidays, and observances that give the year its annual rhythm.
The background is always time and its inexorable passing. McGregor draws a stark contrast between time's arrow for the villagers and time's cycle for the natural world. The villagers are distinct, unique, individuals who are living in a world that is always moving forward, never doubling back; always changing, never staying the same; always moving towards the final end. In contrast, the natural world of insects, birds, flowers, and foxes is always moving in a cycle — birth, death, renewal. The animals and plants have no individual identities so while each individual organism is moving along time's arrow, the time's cycle is the basic metaphor for this natural world.
McGregor weaves these two paradigms of the arrow and the cycle together, the human individual and faceless Nature, often in the same paragraph. In one typically long paragraph that spreads over two pages we move from the summer weather's impact on the muddy roads, the springtails reproducing in the beech leaf pile, and a fallen blackbirds' nest to the arrangement of flowers for the Harvest festival, the rare appearance at the post office of Jones' sister, the nightly dinner for Brian and Sally Fletcher, and Ruth working her garden plot in the allotment. Nothing much has happened while the natural world moves along, but the details of these `uneventful' days gradually accumulate to build a life story for each villager, much as an old photograph gradually comes into focus in the developer tank.
The language is both plain and beautiful, and much is conveyed by little and often, by what is left unsaid. Thirteen dominates the novel's landscape, but the author offers no clues or interpretation of its meaning. There are 13 chapters, each devoted to the 13 years since Rebecca Shaw disappeared at the age of 13. The reservoir furthest from the village and hence most wild and isolated is the eponymous Number 13.
Jones has been the handy-man at the village school for more than 30 years, overseeing the faulty boiler and keeping the place in order. "He had clear boundaries and some of these were known." McGregor never mentions the boundaries that were not known, but Jones later serves time in prison. He lives with his unnamed sister who "was younger and was never seen. She was understood to be troubled in some way" but we never learn what way. And then there's Geoff Simmons, a potter who lives alone and isolated at the end of a little used road and doesn't seem to sell any of his work, and yet, "the pressure of his touch was exactly sufficient and this pot from the clay came to be."
This pattern of subtle, indirect, under-stated poetic descriptions of both the villagers and the natural world combine to create a tension throughout the book between the quiet order of the latter and the often tragic randomness of the former. The villagers' lives unfurl in space and time. The natural world continues to cycle from season to season. Each chapter begins with the midnight of the New Year, and we experience the shortening and lengthening of the days as man's imposition of daylight savings time comes and goes. From a distance, nothing changes but in their individuality played out against the predictable cycles of the natural world, change and loss are the universals for the villagers.
McGregor has the ability to convey this foreground and background, this arrow and cycle, this change and permanence with elegant and crystalline language that draws the reader into the Yorkshire hills. The place, the people, and the time stayed with me for many days after I completed the book. I think they will stay with you as well. Read it.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.