Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

McGregor, Jon - Reservoir 13

At midnight when the year turned from 1989 to 1990, hubby and I were in a pub in the Scottish village of Crianlarich (“the gateway to the Highlands”). ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was sung and there might have been fireworks, although what I remember most about that New Year, our first together as man and wife, was having a massive row and sleeping back to back. You see, back in the day, I liked to party and hubby…er…didn’t.

Since then we’ve seen the year turn 29 times.  I no longer expect to feel euphoric or think that life might change simply because December has turned into January, although I still feel it’s important to mark the transition. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is still sung, and sometimes there are fireworks, but mostly it’s a nice bottle of red wine, Jules’ Annual Hootenanny, and Big Ben chiming in the New Year, and I’m more than happy with that.

If you’re wondering what this has got to do with Reservoir 13, winner of the Costa novel award in 2017, it’s that each of the thirteen chapters covers a year, with each chapter (except the first) beginning “at midnight” on New Year’s Eve.

It’s a clever device, signalling both the passage of time and, through repetition and variation, those changes (personal, societal) that inevitably come with time.

For example in chapter/year one (3rd page): “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry and no one came out to watch.” In chapter/year two this is altered to: “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.” In chapter/year three it becomes: “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from all across the village.”  And so on, throughout the novel, until by chapter/year 13 it’s morphed into: “At midnight there were fireworks in the next valley and tension in the village and no fires were set.”

So why begin every chapter with “at midnight” except for the first? Well, this is because the hook for the story is that a thirteen year old girl, Rebecca Shaw, has gone missing. The novel opens with the volunteers from the village mounting a search “they gathered in the car park in the hour before dawn.”

Spoiler alert…if you’re looking for a traditional mystery/crime novel, this isn’t it.  There is no resolution; we never find out what happened to Rebecca. McGregor’s intention is altogether more subtle than that: to explore “the rhythms of the natural world” going by the blurb on the book jacket.

I’ve no beef whatsoever with novels exploring the minutiae of the everyday – Carol Shields is brilliant at it, and I’m a big fan of her writing.   But the introduction of the ‘missing girl’ right at the start throws this intention out of kilter. Tragedy does, of course, happen to ordinary people, and must be moved on from; however tragedy does not ordinarily happen. Encompassing both elements in one novel might make an interesting literary experiment, but not necessarily an interesting story. Well before the end of the book I was, well, bored, and the song going round in my head was not “Auld Lang Syne” but Del Amitri’s “Nothing Ever Happens”.

Rating: * Worth a try but not for me


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