Tuesday 20 February 2018

Sombre saga of a small community haunted by missing girl mystery

Fiction: Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor, 4th Estate, €17.99

Reservoir 13 by John McGregor
Reservoir 13 by John McGregor

Hilary A White

The natural world reflects many things about our own lives and will always be looked to as an echo chamber for human behaviour and emotions. Cracks of thunder and red roses are the more common incarnations of this in literature but it has been taken much further by writers such as JA Baker and Peter Matthiessen.

For Jon McGregor - who won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2012 for Even The Dogs - the rustles and twitterings of wildlife warrant as much airtime in Reservoir 13 as seemingly insignificant lives in a small country village. Gladstone is a rural Derbyshire community coming to terms with the disappearance of 13-year-old Rebecca Shaw who had been holidaying there with her family. Search parties have scoured the surrounding hills and the system of reservoirs that feeds its way down to the population. The police hold public meetings and press conferences as the girl's description and mysterious fate bed themselves into the collective consciousness of the townsfolk. But while Reservoir 13 begins wearing the garb of a crime novel, McGregor's world is more firmly rooted in a cold reality where life carries on. Each chapter overviews a year, but while the fortunes of this varied human cast of inhabitants may ebb and flow, continuous punctuating references to birds, mammals and plant life all around them, tucked away in forests, hedges and rivers, continues uninterrupted with changing seasons.

But Rebecca doesn't go quietly. Over the years, she is dreamt about, pondered over, speculated on, and there are even reported sightings of her every now and again. Maybe somebody knows something - such as the local lad who had been drawn to her beauty - or maybe it is "just one of those things". Either way, nature has its own battles to fight and doesn't particularly care. The goldcrest must make its nest, the heron must stand still to catch its fish and the fox cubs must stay out of harm's way.

McGregor's roving lens peeks inside windows, bedrooms and hearts around Gladstone with even more precision. Unhappy marriages, affairs, professional upsets and misunderstandings that get out of control are all eavesdropped on without any sense of lingering on particular characters or cultivating a kitchen-sink soap opera.

Our narrator moves on quickly and without much sentimentality. The characters are given colour and animation, like their wild counterparts, via dryly intimate observation. A long block of text might cover three or four character threads with snapshots of nature buffering each.

The world turns and things stay more or less the same. The television only ever shows "pictures of explosions, fires, collapses, collisions". A character says sorry "only because he knew that's what people said", and a confession made in confidence is regretted immediately because "it wasn't something that people understood".

Human patterns of behaviour might just be every bit as predictable as animals, even if we have been lumbered with the burden of choice. While this does allow a cyclical, hypnotic quality to take hold, Reservoir 13 may prove too sombre in its colour scheme for some readers.

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