Jon McGregor’s fourth novel present us with a panoramic presentation of life in the here and now. It is a stylistic dream, immersing the reader in what is the literary equivalent of 3D cinema. It is soap opera (not a dirty phrase in my book) on a grand, profound scale, gripping and tantalising without resorting to grandstanding spectacle. It is magnificent.
In a small northern town, a teenage girl goes missing and in the days, weeks, years afterwards we learn about how life – human and animal – carries on, regardless. McGregor carefully constructs the novel , providing a seemless flow of incident which comes together to create within each chapter a year’s passing. At first this disorientates, with a cacophony of people and animals and incidents and lives coming at you thick and fast, small bite sized snippets which feed into one another to produce an uncomfortable feeling: rather like listening to an orchestra tuning up, all the strings and reeds and breaths and brass straining against one another but slowly the snippets form patterns and something like a tune is formed, weaving together the delicate rhythms of life into which you are plunged: the tides of time, ebbing and flowing as it returns time and again to the rituals which mark time’s passing: from the universal (birth, sex, death) to the parochial (firework displays; exams; marriage; returning to the family nest) until at some point a facet of life is washed ashore and we notice it and it jolts us awake to the time which has passed without us even noticing. McGregor has produced a very special novel one in which instead of being told that time is passing, we are actually carried along and given a clear, tangible sense of time passing, something which cannot be held back, that creeps upon us unawares: one minute the kids are messing around in cars, the next here they are as moody post graduates wondering what to do with their lives…and McGregor’s writing does this incredible thing of suddenly, from nowhere, forcing us to ask ‘where on earth did the time go’? The only other time I have ever come across anything remotely like this is the ‘Time Passes’ section of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’. However McGregor’s book is a very different beast: Woolf’s novel is one which displays its art on its sleeve which can make it feel like a rather frosty experience. Not so McGregor, whose novel is as clever and well crafted, but which carries its cleverness lightly with warmth and deceptively simple style. He presents a genuine delight in the everyday, something which Woolf could never match.
‘Reservoir 13’ is, necessarily, a ragbag of plots and threads which, as in life, sometimes come to a resolution, sometimes do not; it presents us with fascinating hints of what might be, what could be:
‘The streets were cobbled with frozen slush. Someone falling at the top of the lane by the church could have slid tight down to the packhorse bridge. The Cooper twins spent an afternoon proving this until Lee turned his ankle and had to be carried home, At the school when term started there was a sickness bug that went round. Jackson’s boys were kept busy with the sawdust and bleach. By the end of the week the staff had gone down with it too and the school had to be closed for a time. There was talk of the kitchen being at fault but nothing was ever proved. The pantomime was Snow White and in the absence of seven small enough actors in the area the parts of the dwarfs had been taken by the tallest and broadest men the production committee could find. It was meant to be funny but not everyone got the joke. Irene in particular could be heard trying to whisper objections. She wasn’t good at whispering. Andrew took his role of Bashful very seriously, and delivered his lines clearly. When he knelt before Ashleigh, who was playing Snow White, and promised to watch over her, the laughter quite abruptly subsided. There was a hesitation which was either a dramatic pause or Andrew forgetting his line and then Irene whispered that she still didn’t see why they couldn’t have just used children and the spell was broken. Late in the month Martin drove out to the disused quarry and took a sledgehammer to his desktop computer, kicking the pieces beneath the chassis of a burnt-out car.’ (214)
‘Reservoir 13’ also works in two recent literary trends: folk tales and nature, but like his stylistic devices McGregor touches on these lightly: this a community haunted by the missing girl who dwells on the edge of these lives, weaving in and out of the narrative: a sighting here; a theory there; the lonely haunted figure which may or may not be the girl’s father, all the while feeding into the folklore of the place until these stories become transformed into myth: fires are started and the girl’s father is suspected: an iconoclastic youth turns up to a Halloween party dressed as the missing girl.
Like Melissa Harrison’s ‘At Hawthorn Time’ McGregor also ties these lives into the natural rhythms of the natural world: we read about the mating foxes and follow their life cycles as pups are born and grow and hunt. We see the flora and fauna rise and fall in the same way as children return to parents at Christmas; as the annual pantomime and new year’s fireworks; as the daily dog walking: all rhythms and beats pulling together to produce a magnificent symphony of life.
Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ was last year’s book of the year – and this is equally as profound, but whereas ‘Autumn’ looked at tumultuous events through the eyes of ordinary people: this book looks at the ordinary and reveals the tumultuous, important and dramatic lives in and around us all.