Jon McGregor’s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, a surprise inclusion on the 2002 Booker longlist that went on to win the Somerset Maugham and Betty Task Awards, captured 24 hours in the life of a suburban street. Fifteen years later, his fourth novel, Reservoir 13, has a similarly concentrated focus, but this time on a village in the north of England and the lens remains open for 13 years.
McGregor’s portrait of a village is an astonishing feat. He gives us the nature surrounding and intrinsic to the place in prose both precise and poetic (‘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’) and conjures an impressive range of 50-odd characters, slipping easily among their voices and thoughts, each one alive with complexity.
As McGregor takes us, sentence by sentence, from, say, foxes to primroses, to a lone runner, to a parish council meeting, to the lambing, to a flirtatious conversation between a farmer and a school teacher, the village soon feels greater than the sum of its parts, becoming a whole living organism, which we watch develop over the years. Certain annual markers are emphasised as points of comparison, such as whether ‘Mischief Night’ entails moving a bus shelter or letting off stink bombs; who gets which part in the panto; and the collective verdict on the harvest festival decorations: ‘Her decision to include a stack of unwashed fleeces alongside the more usual flowers and marrows and corn attracted remarks, but nothing was said directly.’
Bucolic moments are more than balanced by the many difficulties which rural life evidently can entail: the butcher goes bankrupt and ends up working on the supermarket’s meat counter, where he sees the dairy farmer abandon his shopping when he discovers the price of the milk; the introverted school caretaker, who lives with his housebound sister, is arrested when child porn is found on his computer; a cleaner, the widow of an abusive husband, struggles to cope with her autistic son. Intriguingly, McGregor’s father is a vicar and it’s the female vicar who is the community’s greatest source of solace:
“She collected these confidences from people, and carried them around. It was like piling rocks into the boot of a car, she told her dean once, and sooner or later there are too many rocks and the suspension bottoms out each time you hit a bump in the road.
These problems ripple out from a darkness at the novel’s core: the unexplained disappearance of a teenage girl, holidaying in the village with her family. This terrible event opens the novel and remains hauntingly unexplained as the village struggles with its ongoing repercussions.
McGregor skilfully hints at what his characters don’t reveal, implying that the girl’s fate could be explained if everyone were to tell the whole truth. For all the light the author shines on village life, he deliberately keeps some things in the dark, drawing our attention to what is unsaid, perhaps unsayable.