WHAT LIES BENEATH
by Jude Joseph Lovell
(Review of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor)
It may be different for some readers, but this one had to become fully immersed into the British writer Jon McGregor’s widely praised fourth novel, Reservoir 13, before it became clear that some literary slight-of-hand was being pulled. That I had encountered this novel dressed in the guise of one kind of story only to discover that it is another kind altogether. The experience for the reader who takes the book on will depend to some extent on their willingness to ride along with a novelist who knows what he is on about.
I am here to recommend unreservedly that you do. Reservoir 13 is a brooding, lush story executed with admirable precision and skilled craftsmanship. In spite of the specter of tragedy that hovers unrelentingly over the novel, which unfolds over thirteen years, a case can be made that a book like this functions beautifully as a respite from the frantic pace of the century we live in.
On the surface, Reservoir 13 is a mystery novel about the investigation into the disappearance of a young girl while vacationing with her parents in a tiny village in northern England. Yet this is a story that concerns not surface appearances themselves, but everything that lies beneath. The pastoral setting is crucial. We land there, nestled in what is known as the Peak District, a region that is as rugged as it is withdrawn, teeming with wildlife and strafed by shifting weather patterns.
Another characteristic of the area is the presence of numerous reservoirs, engineered by man to help regulate the water supply. These were created by flooding entire valleys in the early twentieth century, many of which contained the ruins of old villages, now swallowed by the deep.
The novel starts procedurally. We learn about the steps being taken in the investigation, the forensic details, and also the individuals in the village who turn out for the search. Helicopters whorl overhead and media outlets descend. The grieving parents, suddenly childless, struggle to retain their intimacy while coming to terms with this unspeakable misfortune.
But then time rolls on, and the wheel of seasons continues to revolve. The focus shifts from the disappearance itself to the villagers who tried to help resolve it and must shoulder its aftermath. We are gradually introduced to a sort of Greek chorus of individual voices: the young teenagers who knew the girl and spent time with her; the sheep farmer and his strapping sons, tirelessly tending their flock; the vicar who offers a compassionate ear to people both inside and outside of her flock; the schoolteachers who try to help small children grasp the unfathomable; the oddball custodian who is later arrested on child pornography charges; his invalid sister, left without an advocate; and the traveling businessman forced to return to the village to manage his dying mother’s affairs.
Cleverly, McGregor also charts the rhythmic cycles of the natural world in and around the village. He trains his scrupulous eye on the trees and the flowers as they flourish, die, and then bloom again. We read about the flight patterns of numerous birds, where they rest and when, and about the birthing and rearing of foxes and badgers. The detachment of these realities from human affairs has the effect of both refining and expanding the novel’s focus at the same time.
All of this is executed in careful prose that is as poetic as it is exacting. McGregor is the type of writer whose marvelous sentences communicate the emotional weight that suffuses everyday moments. He describes how one set of parents receives their grown son home again: “A young man now; already done with university and filling the house with his lumbering uncertainties.” Another young man gazes on a potential lover: “There was a look on her face that gave him something to think about.” The same discrimination is also deployed to external locales: “There was a tingling before the first fat drops fell, and they came as a letting go.”
There is a wonderful, older oral history by Ronald Blythe (newly back in print) about life in rural England in the mid-twentieth century called Akenfield: A Portrait of an English Village. It simply records the observations of a large group of people living in the titular hamlet, talking about their daily lives, what they have seen, what they are sure of and not sure of. To say Reservoir 13 recalls this book more than any commercial thriller, to my mind, is to pay it a high compliment.
If the reader is looking for pat conclusions or ingenious plot mechanics that suddenly click into place near the end, this sublime story of a terrible tragedy and its gradual rippling across time is not for you. Reservoir 13 doesn’t provide many easy answers. You may have noticed that life is a bit like that as well.
Photograph of birds: Alan Hughes/Geograph
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.