Friday 24 November 2017

A missing teenager against a backdrop of ordinary lives

Fiction: Resevoir 13, Jon McGregor, Fourth Estate hbk, 336 pages, €18.49

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Sam Kitchener

'The missing girl's name was Rebecca Shaw." Reservoir 13 opens in the thick of a familiar drama. Residents of an English village in the Peak District gather in a car park before scouring the moors for 13-year-old Becky Shaw, last seen out walking with her family, who are renting "one of the barn conversions at the Hunter place" for New Year.

Jon McGregor's previous fiction has often depicted ordinary lives continuing in their ordinary way despite the occasional irruption of extraordinary events. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) was a sort of prose version of Brueghel's Icarus set in suburban Bradford, flitting between the oblivious inhabitants of a single street as they went about their business on the day of Princess Diana's death. The events of Reservoir 13 stretch out over 13 years, but a similar dynamic is at work. As the police fail to turn up any meaningful leads about Becky's disappearance, the lives of the villagers begin to dominate the narrative.

Each of the book's 13 chapters covers a single year. We read as Martin Fowler, the feckless butcher, first seen providing the police with information about the owner of a suspicious red van, has his shop repossessed by the bank, is left by his wife, Ruth, and falls in with some poachers. "Jackson", the patriarch of a local farm, whom we first meet gathering his sheep after they've "taken the fear" at the sound of the police helicopters, is immobilised by a stroke, learns to walk again, and refuses to diversify the farm.

A few sentences or paragraphs of each chapter are devoted to one of the dozen or more villagers before switching abruptly to another: "The Jacksons had losses in the hills. Richard Clark came home just before New Year." Children move out, parents die, and relationships break down. But certain rituals persist. The narrative takes care to note the unchanging rhythms of the natural world: some, such as the lambing season, inextricable from village life; others, like the nocturnal habits of foxes and badgers, independent of it. The village has rituals of its own - its pantomime, the annual cricket match.

The effect is hypnotic and not unlike watching a soap: any apparent resolution of a particular storyline is qualified by our knowledge that there must always be another episode, if not in the life of an individual, then in that of the village. Becky's disappearance isn't so much forgotten as it is crowded out by remembrance of all the other things that happen in the intervening years.

Unlike other attempts to explore the aftermath of a child's disappearance or a provincial murder - Philip Hensher's 2011 novel King of the Badgers or TV3's Broadchurch - Reservoir 13 shows little interest in the fate of its missing girl. Perhaps this is because McGregor believes her vanishing isn't as extraordinary an event as it might have appeared. It isn't so strange, presumably, to villagers Brian and Sally Fletcher, who are described as settling down every Sunday evening "to watch whatever was on television. It was something about a murder, on the whole". Becky's disappearance recalls multiple real-life cases: Madeleine McCann, Milly Dowler, the Soham and the Moors murders. At various points in the book, the villagers note news of missing girls in other parts of the country: "these things just kept happening, it seemed".

Murder, or at least violence, fictional and otherwise, is part of the texture of life here; and hardly merits any disruption of the book's studied realism for the sake of something so crass as a narrative resolution. Still, McGregor is too canny a writer not to tantalise the reader's appetite for one. Our suspicion is cast freely among his characters, as it might be in life. The police find child pornography on the laptop of the school caretaker; not long afterwards, Martin Fowler is spotted smashing up his computer hard drive.

More aggravating than these deliberate loose ends is the book's restlessness, which leaves little time for psychological depth. It captures the sweep and bustle of village life better than emotional detail. (Greater pains are taken with the natural world: bees stumbling "fatly" in the sunshine.) Nonetheless, it is a novel of quiet ambition, and in many ways a marvel.

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