The real meaning behind Jon McGregor’s village tale of a missing teenage girl

Each chapter of Reservoir 13 begins at New Year, as the local crime story morphs into an observation of the passing of time.

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In 1977 – a year after Jon McGregor was born – Charles and Ray Eames, the renowned American designers, put their talents to film-making on behalf of IBM. Their film, Powers of Ten, is only nine minutes long but measures the scope of the universe. A couple are seen having a picnic in a park in Chicago from a distance of one metre. Every ten seconds the camera moves away from them by a power of ten: to ten metres, a hundred metres, a thousand, and on to 100 million light years – the Milky Way invisible in a vast sea of night. And then the camera swoops back down, closer and closer, through galaxies and the solar system, to finish right where it began, a close-up on that couple, laughing and eating by the shores of Lake Michigan, the intimate and the long view more closely connected than you would think.

Jon McGregor has always been interested in that kind of connection, too. His first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002, a rare accolade for a debut (I was a judge that year). Set on a single summer’s day in a suburban street, the novel flows between its characters and their quotidian lives, no detail too small to escape the writer’s notice. It is a hymn to the ordinary, and with it the author marked out his territory. His third novel, Even the Dogs – which investigates the life of a chronic alcoholic in the aftermath of his death – won the IMPAC Literary Award in 2012.

In If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things McGregor keeps his camera close on his subject; in Reservoir 13, his first novel in seven years, he pulls out for a broader perspective. The novel is set in a nameless village in Derbyshire, and from its opening the reader could be forgiven for thinking that a crime story, of the Happy Valley variety, might follow. A group of villagers has gathered in the car park before dawn because a teenage girl – a visitor to the place, staying with her parents at a holiday cottage over New Year – has gone missing. Thirteen-year-old Rebecca Shaw was wearing a white hooded top, black jeans, canvas shoes; she was five feet tall with dark blonde, shoulder-length hair. A helicopter has been out all night searching for her, and now the local people have come out to do their bit.

McGregor shows us the village from the top of the moor: the villagers look back from the height and see “the beech wood and the allotments, the church tower and the cricket ground, the river and the quarry and the cement works by the main road into town”. This will be the stage on which he sets his story: but swiftly the novel moves away from being the kind of tale in which a clever copper catches the local wrong ’un. The consolations of this novelist’s work are never as simple as that.

Each of the 13 chapters of the book begins at New Year; and each chapter, bar the first and last, begins the same way, with the words “At midnight when the year turned”. This is a book of the turning seasons, each chapter stretching across 12 months, January through July and into winter, the rhythms of the land rubbing up against the 21st century, against the hollow, frightening space left by the missing Rebecca. As each year passes, the memory of the girl fades, though her name continues to echo throughout the text and the fact of her disappearance continues to burden the lives of the villagers who once searched for her.

Their stories – the shuttering of a butcher’s shop, the local artist’s increasing retreat from the world, the fissures in marriages – are interwoven with McGregor’s close and tender observation of the natural world: the way the skies clear in autumn, the way mud hardens in the lanes. The author abandons paragraph breaks to blend lives and landscape: “In November it rained for so long that the cricket field turned into a bog and the bonfire display was called off. The fieldfares retreated from the fields beside the church and fed beneath the hawthorn hedges. At midday Jones left the school and fetched two pies from the shop.”

Perhaps, as a result, McGregor’s villagers recede somewhat into their setting: there is no dialogue, just the narrative passing evenly over every life, human and animal, bird and insect, every joy, every sorrow. But then that surely is the point: the world turns, time passes, every single life, every single sorrow and joy sparks and then falls, like the villagers’ New Year fireworks, into the long dark of the universe. 

Erica Wagner appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival to talk about “First Light: a Celebration of Alan Garner” (Unbound) with Ali Smith on 23 April

Reservoir 13
Jon McGregor
Fourth Estate, 325pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble