Habitat and Habit: “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor

IMG_20180601_093431Warning: contains spoilers, sort of.

I read Jon McGregor’s debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, when it came out in 2003. I was, I confess, immediately envious of his talent, given that he’s two years younger than me. Ah well, some people have it. This is the first novel of his I’ve read since, and his development as a writer is breathtaking. Its a wonderful, beautifully structured and carefully told tale of life in a north-of-England moor village in the months and years following the disappearance of a young girl.

It is, in common with several recent novels (Fen by Daisy Johnson, Folk by Zoe Gilbert, the works of Benjamin Myers and Andrew Michael Hurley) deeply informed by the concept of ‘place’, and specifically rural place. I can’t help but wonder if this is a backlash against the jingoism that seems to have gripped England in the last few years. These works investigate geography and belonging, and show it as a much more complex and troubled concept than Union Flags and the White Cliffs of Dover would have you believe.

The story is told in sections, one per month – twelve per chapter – over thirteen years. It took me a few “years” to realise this, because McGregor is a subtle writer, and not so gauche as to lumpenly include the name of the month in each section.

Every section is told as if reported – like village gossip, in fact – and the accumulated effect of the repetition reminds me, surprisingly, of Red Or Dead, David Peace’s under-appreciated novel about Bill Shankly’s Liverpool FC.

This means that there is no direct speech; instead, key pieces of people’s conversations are recorded and reported in the same way as the rest of the story, thus establishing a unity of speech and text. This unity feeds through to the prominence given to “natural” events: the mating of the local badgers, the singing of a blackbird, the building of a goldcrest’s nest: all are treated with the same degree of respect and importance as the human dramas. You could argue that it’s the other way around, and that the human dramas are only as “important” as the cycles and struggles of bird and beast and tree.

There is humour, though. Some of it is in the banter between the locals, some comes from the unwitting repetition of habit: in seeing only snatches of these people over a period of thirteen years, their tics are revealed in much more detail than a conventional novel and act like subtle running gags. We know Gordon Jackson will try to pull any woman who comes his way. We know Irene – the cleaner – will gossip but take offence at any interest shown in her own affairs. We know Richard will visit his ailing mother only at Christmas and endure difficult conversations with his sisters. We know the pantomime will feature unintended hilarity or audience-silencing awkwardness.

And what of the missing girl, Rebecca (Becky, Bex) Shaw? I warned about spoilers at the top of the page, and here they come. Does she ever appear? Yes, but only in the villagers’ dreams. Sightings occur as the years pass, but in them she’s dressed as she was on the day she vanished, and so are unlikely to be of her. Who causes the mysterious fires that start each New Year (the anniversary of her disappearance)? Her father is arrested in connections with them but as the book finishes nothing is proved. Could the fires be symbols of the land’s own trauma? And what, finally, of the book’s title? There is a sense of tension: we expect the titular reservoir to reveal something: certainly, the many reservoirs on the moors are regularly attended, surveyed, searched and the drains cleared, but there’s no sign of Rebecca.

It would take a deeper study than this to pick up all the recurring threads that appear throughout the weave of this fine book. It is a novel in which both everything and nothing happens – human, avian, insect, mammalian and vegetable lives breed, blossom and die.

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