Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 was long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and won the Costa Book Award for Best Novel that year as well. It was also nominated for the Goldsmith Prize for experimental fiction, about which he had this to say:

“It felt like a very experimental book while I was writing it, but it’s not necessarily that experimental on the surface, although it demands quite a lot of the reader … a certain patience.”

In terms of the story, it is an impersonal narrative, a series of snapshots into the lives of people living in an English village, beginning in the year that a teenage girl goes missing, an event that in small ways touches the lives of most of the residents, an event that remains permanently associated with it.

The novel continues to zoom in on village life, each chapter equivalent to one year, each subsequent first sentence of the chapter referencing the local fireworks, each chapter resembling a kind of closely knitted pattern. As you would expect, over the years, young people grow up and leave, families are created and fall apart, seasons pass, work is done, animals tended, relationships formed, the past remembered. Likes waves breaking, there is a continuous monotony to life in just another ordinary village, where once upon a time a girl went missing.

“His sister wanted to know where the Tuckers had gone and who would move in next. He said he didn’t always have the answers. He asked her not to ask so many bloody questions, and when the tears came he said he was sorry. It went on like this. This was how it went on.”

I agree it is an accomplished novel, it has been well thought out, structured, it’s almost a piece of modern architecture, in its linear, logical, detached approach. However, I found it almost impossible to be swept into the narrative without the constant awareness of the author’s orchestration and presence, even in some of the voices. It felt very controlled.

There is much that is clever, and intellectually it is something to admire. I reread the comments made on the cover and thought, yes, all that is true, so what did it lack for me? It made me think of a review I read recently for Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar reminding me of that reading experience, which was the anti-thesis of this one. Of being drawn inside a story versus feeling completely outside of it, of the open air art installation versus the museum piece vitrine.

“The passive voice was really deliberate because it just feels very English to me,” McGregor says. “It’s a gossipy village, but they would never think of themselves as gossips. ‘Somebody was seen.’ They’re not going to say: ‘I saw so and so.’ Small communities can be very inclusive, but they can also be very claustrophobic.”

Some books you read and you yourself are far far away from what is happening, you are unable to empathise or relate, you see words on the page, that speak of things happening in and around people, but they are told in a way that keeps them on the page, they refuse to enter your imagination or evoke empathy.

And then there are books that by some kind of magic awaken the imagination, they affect the senses, they can make you feel hot, cold, dehydrated, in pain, terrified, joyous, curious, relieved, all manner of emotions and feelings, and you feel relieved almost that it’s only a story, you will recover. They are not always comfortable, in fact I love reading outside my comfort zone, about other cultures, other experiences, other everything than the familiar.

Reservoir 13 certainly provoked the analytical part of my brain, in fact everything it provoked was in that left hemisphere of the brain and that’s possibly why it was only an okay read for me, it was too far in one direction, admirable as that may be, it leaves me with little to say about it, and little of an impression.

So I’ll finish with a link to the author in an interview with Justine Jordan from The Guardian, which gives greater insight into what the author was attempting to do.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Jon McGregor: ‘I’m allergic to trying to make points in fiction’ – The prizewinning novelist and short story writer on capturing daily rural life and the joy of a bad review

Have you read it? How was the reading experience for you?

 

 

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