Reservoir 13 - Jon McGregor ****
In Reservoir 13, like all of Jon McGregor's novels, nothing happens and yet everything happens. Life happens in other words, which is this author's area of interest and that's about as big a subject as you can expect anyone to deal with. Reservoir 13 demonstrates how brilliantly he is able to follow the rhythms of life that are barely discernible to the individual caught up in their own circumstances and unable to grasp any sense of a bigger picture, if one even exists. That's McGregor's gift and once again, he captures that sense of the small, the seemingly trivial and mundane moments of life and weaves them into a bigger picture that can be poignant and deeply moving.
Reservoir 13 opens a little deceptively with a big event; the disappearance/abduction of a 13 year old girl, Rebecca Shaw from a rural community in middle England. After all the press coverage however, interest seems to fizzle out fairly quickly and life slips back back into its usual rhythm. A decade or more passes and people vaguely reflect that something terrible once happened there, but they only half-remember the girl's name and get on with their lives. Life goes on and we are never sure what happened to the girl, or whether it was really all that important in the scheme of things. That's basically the rhythm that Reservoir 13 falls into and it's one that is a bit like most people's lives. It might seem like it fizzles out and nothing ever lives up to the 'main event', but the disappearance of Rebecca Shaw leaves behind repercussions that might seem unrelated, but are significant nonetheless for the people of the village.
Reservoir 13 follows the pattern of people's lives over the passing of time. A swirl of characters' lives weave in and out, come into contact with one another, meet, separate, never quite get it together, only come into contact with the others fleetingly, in passing or in conversations. It can be difficult initially to follow who is who, particularly if you make the mistake of setting the book down for a day or two and then try to pick up the thread again. One life bleeds into another, flowing along with the change of the seasons in the circle of life, with observations made in passing on the weather, the animal wildlife and the growth of plants and crops. If you keep up with the flow however, the sensation that McGregor creates is like no other.
But then if you've read Jon McGregor's previous novels (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin, Even the Dogs) you'll know exactly what to expect here. Anyone who isn't familiar with the author's distinctive style could find Reservoir 13 rather mundane and wonder why nothing actually happens. It does often feel like you've got trapped with the village gossip filling you in on all the details and movements of everyone; who is seeing who, who isn't coping with her kids, who has money problems and the activities of outsiders who have been seen around town and out on the moors. It's relentless, year after year, but then lives don't really stop to take a break, nor does time, nor do the seasons. There's a mundane comfort about this inevitability at the same time as there is a fearful recognition of being on a course that cannot be slowed down or altered.
It's this pattern, this overview, that impression that Jon McGregor's writing aims to capture and, for better or worse, he does it remarkably well. It's a very unconventional style of writing that creates a perspective of life on a level few other writers - more preoccupied understandably with narrative - are able to achieve. There's not a great deal of psychological exploration, no great insights into the working of the individual mind, but there is a greater sense of the community mindset. That risks appearing superficial, overly concerned with the minutiae of little unconnected moments, but laid out in this way it can be surprisingly poignant and sometimes a little upsetting, but there is also humour in there, with the little punch-lines of irony that life delivers now and again.
Perhaps most essentially there's truth in McGregor's writing; it doesn't sacrifice truth for the demands of narrative structure and manipulation. It seems to me that in Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor has refined this aspect of his writing even further, striving for even greater simplicity, leaving those little moments and convergences to form their own patterns in the mind of the reader. Even the poetic observations of the author's writing are rather more down to earth here. That's why keeping with the flow is essential - even more than working out who is who or understanding psychology or motivation in the characters - to letting the writing weave its magic. It's true however that there McGregor might well have done this better or at least with more impact in his first two extraordinary novels, but if there's not much this time that makes you sit up and take notice, McGregor is still an author with an extraordinary talent, and it's fully in evidence in Reservoir 13.
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is published by Fourth Estate on 6th April 2017
Reservoir 13 - Jon McGregor ****