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18 January 2018

The modest but phenomenal Reservoir Tapes offer four months’ of haunting stories

Over 15-weeks, Jon McGregor’s series of interconnected short stories built something powerful.

By Antonia Quirke

“They live their own lives in the end, no matter what you do.” Children, that is. Such was the conclusion of Jon McGregor’s modest but phenomenal, 15-week, 15-part series of interconnected short stories exploring the disappearance of a heedless, canvas-shoe-wearing teenage girl during a family walk on a grey day in the remote Peak District. It sounds vague, almost like a shrug, written down – that children will leave you in the end, sooner than you might imagine or bear. But it sounded, after months of listening, like the only honest conclusion.

Each week a different character from a village local to the incident narrated their perspective on the case. A journalist, a paperboy, a philandering wife, an itinerant prostitute (played by Siobhan Finneran, exceptional), a faintly sinister pest controller, etc. Some weeks we moved closer to things being solved, other weeks we near-forgot there was anything to solve at all. Many of the stories appeared to exist on their own, untethered to an organising narrative, and yet… piece by unexpected piece (one story involved, as if by magic, a ragged baby alpaca transported in a plastic bag) something powerful was built.

It seemed that the series – now published by Fourth Estate as a book – might run all year. McGregor could do that. He would never run out of ways to describe the landscape and people, the seasons moving in great loops, the air thickening, the flat heath and moorland, the sodden ground that could suck boots off, the bilberries and bog-grasses, sink holes and soft, wet peat, the bees in the foxgloves, the marriages failing, the festivals in church and hall, the fireworks and fights, the vegetation dying in the black soil, the sun rising, the sense of a village with pouchy and insomniac eyes straddling the abyss of years.

The happy became sad and the sad became happy, and sad again, and happy again. I can’t think of hearing anything on the BBC that dealt quite so confidently with the devouring march of months and seasons: this more than anything is McGregor’s great skill. Time withers out and then expands again in his writing, like a bellows, and you keep catching glimpses of life – as it truly is. I’ll miss listening. 

The Reservoir Tapes
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history