Jon McGregor’s new novel “Reservoir 13″ contains some of the finest writing in recent contemporary fiction. Its basic plot is relatively simple: in a small town/village in either the North of England or the Midlands, a family has come for a vacation and is renting a guest house on an area property, when their 13-year old daughter goes missing. Along with police from various towns, the entire village begins the search for this missing girl, and that’s how the reader meets the various characters who live and work in this village. Their daily lives, loves, quirks, families become the core of this beautiful novel. The shadow of this girl’s disappearance will lie like a cloak, however, over everyone’s lives indefinitely. Her parents, possibly separated, possibly not, return to the village from time to time seeking new clues, and the father, in particular, is often seen wandering through the hills and reservoirs that define the land where they all live.
In spite of this tragedy, peoples’ daily lives must and do continue, which is the strong narrative structure of the novel. We meet and see the exterior and interior lives of quite a number of villagers, old, middle-aged and young; we will learn which teenagers in the village had spent time with the missing girl–all clues about her disappearance lead to nowhere–but whether we’re reading about the janitor in the public school, who lives with his troubled sister and whose own secrets will be revealed–or about the young widow whose life will include walking her neighbor’s dog and the growing friendship between her and this neighbor, and a love affair she has with a boyfriend from her past, come home to see to his dying mother–the tapestry that village life becomes is a thing of wonder and often beauty.
McGregor’s great strength as a writer is to continue to follow the rhythm of the seasons, of nature, as the lives of the villagers continue through the decades. Many a new chapter begins with the annual New Year’s Eve party and fireworks celebrations; others, with the new growth of flora and fauna, which are meticulously rendered, and whose lives also mirror the rhythms of nature. We’re privy to many generations of foxes, their matings, the birth of their babies, their move to independence and terratoriality; birds are born and fly off only to return, and the like. This integration of nature and her rhythms intertwined with the rhythms of human life is where McGregor’s writing is so astonishing; the writing reminds me of that of the great naturalist American essayist, Edward Hoagland. And McGregor’s perspectives on human and natural lives are very Asian: man’s place in the universe seems to have about the same rhythms and importance as all other living things. Those great Chinese paintings of the T’ang and S’ong dynasties that show a man traveling up a high mountain very much come to mind; in those paintings, man is small, so the viewer understands that man’s role in the grand scheme of nature is no more or less important than other natural elements. We’d now call both McGregor’s kind of writing and those Chinese paintings holistic.
Decades go by as villagers marry, go to college, come back home, move away, die, remarry, remember. But every element of nature returns and revives, and though the young missing girl, if alive, would be 25 years old when the novel ends, the memory of her vanishing does affect virtually every villager’s consciousness, but not that of all of the rest of nature. McGregor proposes as cyclical view of nature and human life, and so do the Chinese. ” Reservoir 13″ is a beautiful and fascinating novel, unusually written and constructed, and it’s one of those wonderful “sleeper” novels that appear rarely but that delight and move us.