Reservoir 13—Jon McGregor

[I decided to read this 2017 novel in three sections, writing in detail after each section. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will eventually find out everything that happens in the book.]

10th February 2021
Chapters 1-4
This is very unusual. In each chapter, so far, the events of a single year in an upland village have been described. We are in a fictionalised version of the Peak District, so there’s plenty for McGregor to describe as the year turns. Which it does, a whole year in every chapter. Each of these is in sections and each section seems to move things on by a single month. The return of certain dates in the calendar can bring slight changes. In Chapter 1, a girl has gone missing on the night of 30th December, and search parties are out all next day. The second section of the chapter opens: ‘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.’ The girl has not yet been found by the end of the year, and Chapter 2 opens with what appears to be the same sentence—except that it ends with the sound of the distant fireworks not reaching ‘the few who’d come out to watch.’ Chapter 3: ‘At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from all across the village.’ The girl is still missing.

These echoes, or echoes made slightly discordant by unexpected changes, become a way for McGregor to show, in this case, how people behave respectfully, but also how time has an effect. It isn’t that there’s anything overtly grudging about the respect, but this is the 21st Century, and nobody can grieve for years about somebody else’s child. She wasn’t even local, but from a family renting one of the holiday cottages. Her mother had stayed on, but during the second year (if I remember rightly) she had left. Fair enough. Other dates are also marked, like ‘Mischief Night’ in late October, and the putting back of the clocks, and we notice them. Winter ice or rain is never quite the same as last year, the grass-cutting in early summer is sometimes disrupted by wet weather. ‘There’s weather’ is an often-repeated phrase. That’s the south Pennines for you.

McGregor has a lot of ways to signal the turning of the year and, I realise, most of them contribute to a sense of inevitability. The village is near moorland, with its own seasonal ebb and flow, and there’s a sheep farm and a dairy herd. Tupping, lambing and shearing all happen in the background, as human relationships also come and go. There’s a romance between two of the adolescents who gather together for outdoor cider-drinking and whatever else adolescents get up to. It doesn’t last long. And they clearly saw more than they are telling of the missing girl when she was there, twice, on holiday. Meanwhile adult relationships shift according to different time-scales, but can be just as unpredictable. Will Jackson, one of the brothers who run the sheep farm, has long been separated from the woman we assume to be his wife. Will he, won’t he make a long-term thing of a brief fling with a local teacher? It turns out he won’t, and she calls him an idiot when he accidentally makes his feelings clear only when she’s leaving for a new job. When his partner arrives and starts going for walks with him, he decides it isn’t what he wants—but, as she leads him to a secluded place after they’ve kissed, he follows. They marry later in the year. Or the following year—it’s hard to keep track.

Will’s name seems almost ironic. He thought he didn’t want his old relationship back, and now here he is, married. Meanwhile other marriages go through what marriages go through. One man in his 40s, unsuccessfully married previously, had never had another relationship that led to anything much—and then he met a woman of Chinese heritage. Years of trying to have children, including expensive fertilisation treatment, have led to twins. Lovely. Except the flat is too small, and he’s clueless about how he might help his harassed wife. He runs the local newspaper single-handedly, and it’s his obsession. His wife doesn’t tell him how it is not helping, no doubt hoping, vainly, that he might work this out for himself. Another couple have recently split up following the bankruptcy of the butcher’s shop that might have been helping to keep the marriage together. The disappearance of the girl led to her parents’ splitting up too, although it appears after something like three years they might be back together. Time passes.

The tone is… similar to the way I’ve been describing it. Stuff happens, and McGregor tells us about it. Sometimes the reporting of events is as unemotional as a factual news item—most of the descriptions of the missing girl are like this but, as is clear from those reports of what happens at New Year, plenty of other things are covered in what are essentially factual-sounding accounts. It’s part of what I’ve come to think of as a kind of sleight of hand. The building of nests by swallows, the roosting of herons, the migration of fieldfares are all juxtaposed with whatever human activity is going on at around the same time. The preparation of panels for the annual well-dressing, the visits by the local woman vicar to the Jacksons’ father, disabled by a stroke and not attempting to regain any of his fitness, the inspections of one or other of the local reservoirs.

The reservoirs. They are numbered, not named—something which McGregor must know never happens in Britain. Has he done it to make them seem alien, imposed from outside? The investigations into the girl’s disappearance included searches all around them—there are a lot of places near reservoirs for accidents to happen, for bodies to get mashed up—but the same goes for the moors and everywhere else. It’s a moor where the girl’s white top is found after more than three years, and we know it’s hers because McGregor has given us the list of what she was wearing often enough. It’s one of the book’s mantras, as inevitable and as random (and predictable) as all the other human activity. ‘The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, Becky or Bex.’

Are we interested in her? Is she any more than the McGuffin to trap unwary readers into an endless procession of ordinariness? I would say no, and no. No, we aren’t interested in her after the first few weeks following her disappearance, and while the parents’ plight is as sad as these things always are, McGregor never shows them to us in close-up. If anything, they’re marginal, noticed out wandering in his grey anorak (him) or opening the door to the vicar, there to offer comfort (her). Something happens from time to time that has a bearing on Rebecca’s story and, after three years, one local boy has admitted to having been very friendly with her both times she visited. Is it important? Are we bothered? I’m asking not because I think McGregor has failed to excite us—there’s also some low-level criminal activity going on that would lurk in the inside of the local papers if mentioned at all—but because I get the impression that this is the point. Lives are lived, people do what people do, and… and what? I can’t think of another English novelist who has tried to do anything like this. To make something out of what really isn’t very much at all. McGregor, I understand, writes short stories and is a fan of Raymond Carver. It figures.

14th February
Chapters 5-8
Happy Valentine’s Day. It’s mentioned in these chapters, specifically to highlight an issue between Martin, the butcher, and his estranged wife. She brings him the card she’s pretty sure he sent her. He tells her he definitely did not. McGregor allows us to speculate whether he’s telling the truth. The reader might not be terribly interested one way or the other.

These middle chapters, covering another four years…. Same. For me, the format is becoming a little creaky, however impressive the technique. It’s part of the problem for me, that the technique is so—what?—blatant. As with the first four chapters, McGregor collages elements that mark the passage of time. I didn’t mention that each month-long section consists of a single paragraph, however many different vignettes or scenes or events might be covered. At random, from the middle of the novel, the February section from Chapter 7:

Irene, the widow with the son who seems to be on the autism spectrum, is cleaning at the pub while the landlord is thinking aloud about installing a pizza oven; they stop to watch a news item about a girl who has been found dead having gone missing in similar circumstances to Rebecca, but there is definitely no connection; a long-empty house which was bought the previous year is being completely renovated on behalf of a widower from Birmingham, but he hasn’t moved in yet; the pub landlord runs an ill-advised all-you-can-eat pancake event on Shrove Tuesday; twenty feet inside the badger sett we know about, the young are being born; for some time, every day is misty, and it never entirely lifts; in the empty butcher’s, Martin’s knives are still visibly on show; ‘corn salad’ is growing under hedges; Jones, the school caretaker, buffs the floors and congratulates himself on being able to guess which child created which display item on the walls.

That’s nine collaged sections, five human-based and four not, covering a little under two pages. And the pattern—which is never repeated in an identical way—is almost always like this. Some pieces of the collage might be a single sentence, while others—the pizza oven/news item sections, for instance—take up over half a page between them. And occasionally—this has only started happening in the second half of the novel, aside from the section of Chapter 1 that introduces the Rebecca thread—a single scene takes up almost the whole chapter. For something approaching two pages, we could be in a conventional narrative, as when Martin goes out to poach a deer with two men who stole his knives back for him—and then we’re with a heron as it spears a fish at the weir.

This is the form. But is there anything interesting happening? Should we even be asking, or should we just let it all unfold in its own time, like a soap opera? Is that what this novel is, really? Or is it a version of anthropology, human lives observed by an omniscient author—he can see right into their most private thoughts—alongside the mating habits of fritillary butterflies and badgers?

I didn’t answer my own question—is there anything interesting happening? I’ve mentioned Irene and her possibly autistic son. He is growing more difficult for her to handle as he becomes stronger and subject to urges he doesn’t understand. Her husband was never any help at all when he was alive, like some other husbands in this village. Often, it’s as though men just don’t get it, or allow themselves to drift into emotional territory that’s beyond them. Will is like that, and so is—what’s he called?—the one who writes the local paper, rather bewildered when his wife takes the children to her mother’s in Manchester for a while. She comes back, but I’m not sure he understands why. When she discovers £5,000 saving book, he says it’s money for a trip to China so the twins can discover their heritage. She tells him he’s clueless. Meanwhile, there’s some back-story on Jackson, the stroke victim who’s now almost bedbound. He used to rule with a kind of iron discipline, and his wife is lost now. When two of her grown-up sons decide to emigrate to Australia, it doesn’t make any sense to her.

It really could be a soap opera, but it’s a cleverly patterned collage of elements too. McGregor is careful in the way he reminds us of the different threads, like Rebecca’s. That news item about the dead girl sits with the discovery, by a dog, of a body-warmer that sounds like hers—the woman walking the dog doesn’t notice, but the reader does—and the father is back, doing a sponsored walk all the way to the village from where he lives, and then becoming the object of suspicion again when he begins searching the reservoirs.

Those reservoirs, again. There seems to be no orderly sequence in the occasional mentions of them, the maintenance work and the walk taken by a man and woman who might once have married had things been different. I think they are the ones who go to Reservoir 13, but nothing happens there. The woman, to the man’s sort-of surprise, starts to date somebody she’s met online. Meanwhile the man she’s known for years has such commitment issues the reader is pretty sure she’s right not to get involved. He does what he always does, going on long working trips abroad and only coming home to be worried by his mother’s failing health and his sisters’ apparent lack of concern. Why, he wonders, does it always have to be him?

There are other things. All the adolescents in the village reach university age together—really?—so we get some of that. There’s a New Age protest site up next to some standing stones when there’s a possible threat of development by the local quarrying firm. Jones the caretaker, the one who’s privately proud of his familiarity with the children’s styles of work, is arrested for having child pornography on his computer—a fact it becomes hard for him to hide from the needy sister we learn he made a promise to look after. The woman from London (I think) who arrived in one of the earlier chapters—I didn’t mention her then—is menaced by the husband whose violence made her leave. He’s arrested too. All human life.

And we’re still wondering, will Reservoir 13 really be important? I notice there are thirteen chapters, so maybe something will happen at the end. Is this, really, just a resolutely literary whodunit? Are we being invited to work out, or guess, which one of these people is guilty of bringing about Rebecca’s disappearance and, no doubt, death? All that clever stuff put me off, but it looks as though it might be.

16th February
Chapters 9-13—to the end
It isn’t a whodunit. The disappearance of the girl, echoed half-way through in that section I referred to, and again near the end when another girl goes missing on New Year’s Eve, is simply a part of McGregor’s artistic project. Or is it anthropological? Stuff happens, and it isn’t neat, like in the stories—if it’s possible to have an existentialist soap opera, this is it. I became quite glum as I read these final chapters, as almost everything tends towards entropy. Several of the reservoirs need urgent maintenance work, and that’s just the beginning. OK, McGregor throws us a morsel of comfort occasionally, but even an unexpected but welcome anniversary dinner can’t hide the truth of the husband’s serious health problems. Su, the Chinese wife of the much older man, will spend the last decades of her life without him. Or she’ll nurse him through a long decline into real old age. He’s 65 now, but Jackson must have been around that age when he had his stroke, and he’s still alive and entirely bedbound at the end of the novel. His long-suffering wife gives him a bed-wash every evening. It seems to be what counts for love in this universe.

The book has had praise heaped upon it. It’s one of those paperbacks whose back cover and six inside pages—six!—are a litter of favourable notices. Also on the cover are blurbs about the prizes it won (one, the Costa) and long/shortlists it reached (two). What do people love about it? I’m guessing it’s the form, this predictable/unpredictable mix of human life and the turning of thirteen years of the natural world. From the start, I found myself trying to decide if McGregor had actually cut up pages of description, such as the yearly cycles of mating, birth and nurturing of fox cubs and badgers and the trajectories of different relationships. It’s possible, and it would allow for a lot of discretion on the author’s part. A Jackson Pollock drip painting can look accidental, but there’s always structure and rhythm in there.

Some of the praise focuses on the sentence-making. There are passages of beautifully direct pastoral observation, like three- or four-line celebrations of the recurring wonder of it all. But there’s also praise for McGregor’s humanity, which I’m not so sure about. He’s wondrously good at nailing the gulfs between people and, sometimes, the gulf between what a person thinks about their life and the truth we can perceive about it. I’ve mentioned Cooper before, if not by name, the 65-year-old editor of the local paper and the talented Chinese wife he doesn’t understand and takes for granted. She has a much more high-powered job in Manchester, working for the BBC. We aren’t surprised, in this novel, when she’s made redundant. Before that, she has her media friends over for dinner, and he doesn’t understand why he feels so out of the conversation. He goes to bed early.

There’s Lyndsey, one of the adolescents-turned-recent-graduates, convinced that the security offered by an older, sorted-out man is what she wants. Sometimes you just know, she tells one of her friends and, after she’s married and doing the nurse training that seems to have been her husband’s idea, we aren’t at all surprised when she kisses one of the old boyfriends on the lips. She thinks it’s nothing, and hurries back to the husband with the cars and house that are all paid for. There’s the man with the commitment issues, who finally finds himself having an affair with the woman he let slip through his fingers all those years ago. He knows she’s thinking the same as he is, grateful that they’ve got together at last and ready to spend their lives together. He’s astonished when she tells him otherwise—and she’s surprised later that she misses him. There’s one of the Jackson brothers, always letting the next woman he has his sights on make the running. ‘There’s a pattern,’ and he can read them like a book. Except maybe he’s losing his touch. At the end of the novel, he’s sleeping with one of the young women we know, but only because she’s hasn’t a clue about him and the way he operates.

Is it humane, or is it just close observation? Whichever, I feel some disappointment that these parallel stories don’t come together in any but accidental ways. I had visions of there being a great, overarching trajectory in which seemingly disparate elements come together into something new and strange. They don’t. However well-handled it all is, there seems to be nothing new on offer concerning the nature of the human condition. We become adults, we have experiences and relationships, we make mistakes. And, in a lot of cases, we have physical or mental health problems. The head of the school takes early retirement, and people are discreet about the trouble she had been having in keeping it together. The local potter—I didn’t mention him—shows all the signs of clinical depression just when we thought he might have the chance to make a life with a woman potter in Devon. He smashes the relationship and a kiln full of pots in the same sad little episode.

How sad is it, in fact? The way he has been presented has never made the reader sympathise much with him, his fierce artistic independence making him seem merely stand-offish. Now, in his despair, he can join the others also going quietly mad. He gets over it, sort of, but neither he nor the reader knows how he’ll ever be able to make a living. How people actually make money is something McGregor only gives an approximate impression of. If it does come up, it’s because people have run out of it, like Susanna, the formally abused wife who has to close her knick-knack shop.  

The potter’s uneasy survival sits alongside others. Sometimes, a kind of equilibrium seems to be achieved. Susanna’s really feeling the pinch financially after the shop closes, and she has to start paying bedroom tax because her son’s left home. Luckily, she is able to move in with her lover, Ruth, the wife of Martin the butcher. And yes, we did see that one coming. The young man on the autism spectrum is in sheltered housing and, apparently, can do useful things in IT. Irene, his 60-something mother who had been hiding the bruises he had been giving her at home, can now carry on cleaning. She never gave up cleaning the house, even with its smashed door-frames and kitchen cupboards, but now it’s been sorted out she can open up as a B&B. She still cleans other people’s houses too, and is glad not to get any more intrusive questions about how she’s keeping. Who do people think they are, asking questions like that? (Her resentment of genuine offers of help is one of the saddest and most humane moments in the book. She doesn’t recognise people’s genuine concern.)

The petty crooks don’t do so well. One of them is the brother of the much younger wife of Brian, the chair of the parish council. The vicar had been charmed when Brian told her he was marrying because he’d never felt cared for by anybody before in his life. It makes this marriage different from many in the book, after he chooses her over his disapproving family. Except for the big house, he is more or less disowned by them. The brother, meanwhile, has sunk deeper than his humble origins, if anything, and is being led astray by the one with the violent tendencies. After robbing an old woman in another village, they are arrested. Their caravan on the council chairman’s land is later set alight, and a dozen of the apple trees they had been pruning are reduced to black skeletons.

It’s the first of many arson attacks that take place at New Year’s for some years after, and people have their suspicions. McGregor likes telling us about people’s suspicions—like the endless speculation, in the last page or so, about the probable part played by the parents in the girl’s disappearance. It’s how people are, in this universe. Meanwhile Martin, who has low-life connections of his own, is worried about the way Jones’s computer had incriminated him. He smashes up his own computer and hard drive and hides it under a burnt-out car wreck in a disused quarry. For a moment, I wondered whether this might be a clue in the missing girl case. It isn’t, obviously. That’s not how this book works.

How does this book work, in fact? Is it really any more insightful than a soap opera? I’m leaning towards a no, but maybe I’ll come back to that.