Sometimes you open a book and are astonished, every page has something to delight, interest and intrigue. This may be the style, as in Lincoln in the Bardo, or the narrative as in The Underground Railroad or it may be a combination of the two as in Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor.
McGregor has twice been nominated by the Man Booker, for his debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and one other, he has won many prestigious awards: The Betty Trask Prize, the Somerset Maughan Award and the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, so it is hardly surprising that he is once again on the longlist of the Man Booker.
This lyrical, pastoral novel reads somewhat like the journals of Gilbert White of Selbourne, in the sense that the whole novel covers a period of 13 years, each chapter beginning at the start of the New Year, or a bit after.
The opening chapter starts with the search for a thirteen year old girl, Rebecca. The family have been to the area before, once in the summer and again for the New Year (though never actually named, it is clearly the Peak District because there is a tradition of Well Dressing, which I believe to be unique to Derbyshire). The Shaw family stay in a converted barn belonging to Stuart and Jess Hunter. In the opening scene, the villagers and townspeople are gathered together waiting to be instructed on how to fan out, look out and search into the hills where Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex was last seen.
The other reason that I suspect that it is Derbyshire is the use of some dialect language, clough being one such dialect word and meaning ‘steep valley or ravine’.
The whole book is divided into chapters that are one year long. Each paragraph is exceptionally long, just as is a journal. There are repetitions of festivals, especially the well dressing, about which we learn a great deal in some detail; Mischief Night, bonfire night, the cricket match against Cardwell, usually lost and New Year. There is also a considerable amount of natural observation, swallows coming and going; blackbirds mating, bringing off chicks, singing; firecrests, buzzards and other birds; foxes and badgers create dens, mate, have cubs and go foraging which is why I likened this novel to Gilbert White. All this integrates with the lives of the townspeople and their children, their doings and undoings, loyalties and betrayals, successes and failures.
August was hot and slow. The seed-heads of cow parsley and thistle blackened in the field margins, collapsing in the early dew. The river was clear and slow and the sun struck it hard. There were brown trout teeming thickly through the water. In the evening Ian Dowsett set up in the shade of a beech tree and tried dropping a few different mayflies but nothing was right for the rise. He could hear voices from someone’s back garden at the top of the steep bank and the air was still. In Cardwell the cricket was drawn for the second time in three years and some of the younger players started to talk confidently about a turn in the tide. In Fletcher’s orchard the blackbirds were fattening on the early windfalls, lazy about territory and forgetting to sing. Sally watched them from the kitchen window while she made an omelette for dinner. She folded half of it on to a plate for Brian to have later. He’d left a note on the table to say he’d be late back from the parish council. […] There were springtails in the old hay at the back of the lambing shed, feeding and laying eggs and hatching out, and at the end of a long stem a single male sat poised with his tail hooked to his belly, ready to spring into the air for the first time of his life. There was a moment’s hesitation. Overnight the heat broke into heavy rain but by late morning the ground was dry. In his studio Geoff Simmons turned the new pots on the wheel, using a narrow knife to cut a bevelled edge at the base and a leather to work the rough patches smooth…
There is quite a cast of characters and occupations: the sheep farming family of Jacksons; the dairy farm of Les Thompson; the stonemason Sean Hooper and his son, Liam; the solitary potter, Geoff Simmons; the school mistresses and Jones, the caretaker; the Vicar, Jane Hughes and a great many others, all play their parts in the life of the town, taking it in turns to do the display at Harvest Festival and of course, the well dressing and simply living with and amongst each other.
Rebecca’s disappearance never goes away, the case remains open. The local reservoirs fill, run over and dry up seasonally, as does the river; heather, willows and the other vegetation flower, fruit and wither in their seasons.
This is quite magical writing, it sounds odd the way I have presented it, but reading it is like reading someone’s private journal, as if they have just sat down with an over-seeing eye and recorded all that is around them, all of it integrated, connected and of equal importance, whether human or natural and drawn us into the narrative, so that we like them are on the look-out for Rebecca, or remember her and wonder where she is.
We, in real life, know the trajectory of this sort of situation: mass interest and media attention; a dropping off and a revival when the fifth anniversary passes; another similar incident somewhere else. What this novel tells us though, is about the underlying scar that such an event leaves on the people and the landscape where the disappearance occurred; there is never an ending unless there is resolution…
Not everybody admires this wide-angle lens look at life, a regular criticism is of Jon McGregor’s lack of focus, the inconsequential details along with the ones that move the story on, but isn’t that what life is actually like? Anyway, I love it and would like to see him win, but suspect that it is not adventurous enough, even in this exceedingly unadventurous longlist.