Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is set in an unnamed village in Derbyshire’s Peak District. On the surface this is a story about what happens to a village community when tragedy strikes. Buried deep is the question of how a community can sustain a compassionate interest in the aftermath of tragedy.

Reservoir 13 opens with a search for a missing girl, Rebecca Shaw. It happened at least thirteen years ago. It’s a common enough tragedy, as evidenced by Jon McGregor’s careful punctuation of the story with reports of similar events on the television news. There are thirteen chapters – one for each of the years since the girl’s disappearance. Each chapter begins with the same words: “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks” (including arson) and each chapter follows the same chronological formula. There are no paragraphs, just long lists of observations of events and relationships.

Life does go on. Weather happens, birds carry on nesting, children grow, relationships change, cleaning has to be done, bridges need mending, the reservoirs need maintaining and the cricket team keeps losing. People come and go.

Life goes on. Is that cliche, or is that proverb – wisdom hard won in the teeth of bitter experience? The author is omniscient. He sees it all. There is no moral judgement – except in his poetic retelling of this village life in details which are compellingly compassionate.

This is a book which focuses on what doesn’t happen, rather than what does. A girl goes missing. What are you supposed to do after the search party? This is a story where a girl goes missing twice: when she is on holiday with her parents and when she goes missing from the story.

I remember a similar search where I was living in the Manor estate in Sheffield. A boy had gone missing. Local residents wore themselves out for weeks, joining in search parties, day and night. I can’t remember what happened. I can’t remember whether the boy was found, whether he was dead or alive. I can’t remember his name. Is that to my shame, or is that what happens? Life goes on.

A boy or girl goes missing, but it is only those closest to them who will miss them. We barely remember. That is how we re-cover.

Reservoir13 was winner of the 2017 Costa Novel Award and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017. It was published by Fourth Estate in 2018.

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