‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor begins with the disappearance of Rebecca Shaw, a thirteen-year-old girl who goes missing while on holiday with her family in the Peak District in the early 2000s. In the years that pass following her disappearance, the various residents of the small rural village get on with their lives, but the mystery of what happened to Rebecca continues to have an impact on the tight-knit community.
McGregor is an author who is new to me and his fifth novel published earlier this year has been longlisted for several major literary awards including the Man Booker Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize and, most recently, the Costa Novel Award. At first glance, the scenario presented at the beginning of ‘Reservoir 13’ appears to be the archetypal “missing girl” plot of so many crime TV dramas and novels from the past decade or so. Readers expecting a straightforward whodunnit with a neat conclusion will probably be disappointed, but I was pleasantly surprised by McGregor’s playfulness with genre conventions which he has pulled off with great effect. It made me realise how fixed my expectations have become in terms of how such narratives are typically structured and resolved, and it was refreshing to read a novel which completely turned this idea on its head.
The number 13 holds some significance – there are 13 reservoirs in the area and each of the 13 chapters is set over a year in the life of the village since the 13-year-old girl’s disappearance. McGregor’s spare prose eschews standard dialogue and has a timeless quality with specific dates or places rarely indicated, although there are clues that ‘Reservoir 13’ is set in the early years of this century with the presence of social media gradually increasing along with signs of how the rural way of life is in creeping decline. There is a large cast of characters – perhaps a few too many in that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of all of the residents’ connections to each 0ther – but the atmosphere of a community gradually coming to terms with the disappearance is quietly affecting, with this significant event remaining in the background of so many people’s lives for so many years. The lyrical descriptions of the natural world and seasonal changes in the countryside drift seamlessly alongside the villagers’ preoccupations, emphasising the endless ebb and flow of big and small events over time as life goes on for everyone.
’Reservoir 13’ is a subtle and surprising novel which turned out to be far more inventive than I had initially expected. I will definitely be seeking out more of McGregor’s work in the future.