Jon McGregor’s first novel, the Man Booker Prize longlisted “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things,” was a shrewdly composed, beautifully orchestrated urban hymn. “The city, it sings,” ran its opening refrain, and from there McGregor zoomed into a British street and amplified its residents’ individual voices.
Fifteen years later, McGregor has attempted something similar, only this time with a rural setting. “Reservoir 13” — longlisted for this year’s Man Booker — begins with a tragic incident, and continues first by examining a community in crisis, and then by atomizing that community and following the flow of disparate and interconnected lives over the years. Once again, McGregor forgoes overarching plot for an intricate and absorbing mosaic-like structure of miniature stories, scenes and snapshots.
The book’s tragedy is a disappearance. In an English village in the bleakest midwinter, 13-year-old Rebecca Shaw goes missing. Everyone comes outdoors and joins the search. Months pass and there are news conferences, church services and police reconstructions, but still the girl is not found.
The police investigation goes on but so too does country life. McGregor’s villagers are forced to get back to their day-to-day business, and to grapple with their own woes and concerns. A butcher faces insolvency. A farmer suffers a stroke. A mother struggles to cope with her young twins. Years elapse and teenagers grow up and venture out.
There are births and deaths, joy and heartache, new pairings and foundering marriages. Despite their differences, the villagers come together and celebrate annual events such as Bonfire Night, Mischief Night and Christmas pantomimes.
As the seasons change, McGregor shows he is just as interested in cyclical change in the natural world as he is circumstantial change in human lives and relations. Things blossom and wither. At the allotments, “sprouts knuckled tight against the frost”; in a conifer plantation, “goldcrest nests were thickly packed with eggs the size of babies’ thumbs.” The clocks, we are told with regularity, “went forward and the evenings opened up and the days stood a little straighter on their feet.”
As characters visit fields and farms, explore caves, quarries and mines, and comb woods, moors and reservoirs, we wonder if a body will be unearthed or a secret disclosed. “People felt involved,” McGregor writes. But is anyone guilty? To reveal would be to ruin.
What can be said is that while “Reservoir 13” starts out with the familiar hallmarks of a crime novel, it quickly develops into a quite different literary beast, one that acquires power and depth through bold form and style, not gripping drama and suspense.
McGregor’s controlled prose — all pertinent detail, lilting rhythms, lush textures — unfolds in long, un-paragraphed blocks. No one speaks in quotation marks. No main character emerges. However, McGregor ensures that everyone in his ensemble piece pulls their weight to move, scare or entertain us. This is unconventional storytelling, a daring way to tell a tale, but one that yields haunting and stimulating results.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Jon McGregor.
Publisher: Catapult, 290 pages, $16.95.