(New York, NY: Catapult, 2017)
On New Year’s Eve in an unnamed English village near Manchester, a visiting teenager named Becky disappears. The entire village assembles to look for her. Police and investigators swarm the village, the search goes on in earnest for months, and the case remains open for years. She is never found. Reservoir 13 follows the village for as many years as Becky had lived, allotting a chapter to each. As the thirteen years methodically tick by, the narrative drifts in and out of people’s lives, assembling a patchwork quilt of a community forever altered.
If the first chapter can be considered an introduction, the remaining twelve follow a loose pattern. The first sentence of each chapter begins, “At midnight when the year turned,” with the second half different, sometimes by degree, occasionally radically. The ceaseless repetition coupled with a distinct marking of the year underscores the annual changes to the familiar village fabric. As readers move through time, a yearly cycle of events emerges: New Year’s Eve fireworks, Spring Dance, Cricket match, Harvest Festival, Mischief Night, Bonfire, Pantomime, repeat. When the cycle itself breaks, it breaks in many places, as the year when the vicar announces her impending move to Manchester, the cricket match against a rival village is finally won, and the pantomime is cancelled.
Quiet and intimate, the narrative engages readers early with the immediacy of the missing person tragedy, and holds attention with ordinary people who are compelling because they are familiar. Readers are drawn in, but held at a remove, given just enough detail to capture empathy and inspire voyeurism. Reading becomes a trance-like undertaking, much like the first chapter’s search party. We move through the years as they moved through the moors and reservoirs and abandoned sheds the first night of Becky’s disappearance.
As the police presence gradually fades into the background, the novel becomes less about Becky’s disappearance and more about the village and its inhabitants. We come to realize the novel’s primary concern was always these characters and the endurance of the village as a character in its own right. And yet the tragedy reverberates throughout the community. Helicopters trigger flashbacks to the initial search. Teenagers are afraid of worrying their parents, who are afraid of losing their teenagers. Sightings of the missing girl continue years later; the villagers even dream of her. “They had felt involved, although they barely knew her.” One Mischief Night, “a girl from another village dressed up in a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer and black jeans, and canvas shoes, and zombie makeup. She was driven back to her parents, and words were had.” Eleven years on, the village cannot abide making light of Becky’s disappearance. Becky touched everyone with her absence, even those who moved to the village well after her disappearance.
Lovely turns of phrase echo across the chapters, slightly altered with each repetition, personifying time and marking yearly cycles: “The clocks went forward and the evenings opened up and the days stood a little straighter on their feet.” Spare specifics set the rural scene and hint at villagers’ relations with one another. The outside world creeps in as rarely as mentions of modern technology. World events are peripheral to the life of the village, often juxtaposed with natural rhythms.
McGregor has a knack for running all aspects of life together in long, formless paragraphs. Rather than giving everything equal weight, this serves to lull the reader just enough to let the humorous and the tragic stand out in turn. “They’d lost a ewe while he’d been gone. There was a meeting of the parish council. Brian Fletcher had trouble keeping people to the agenda, and eventually had to concede that it was difficult to pay mind to parking issues at a time like this. The meeting was adjourned. The police held a press conference in the function room at the Gladstone…” The ordinary constantly abuts the unexpected.
The narrative offers readers snippets of characters’ lives, providing just enough detail so readers are mildly invested in their changed circumstances when the narrative visits them in unregulated turns. A widow redecorates a room ten years after her spouse dies. A promising affair fizzles. The school caretaker has time to fish for trout. A newcomer presumed to be a widower turns out to be divorced, causing the gossip mill to feel “cheated.” Businesses open and close. An estranged couple with a young son reconciles, reunites, has a second child, and separates once again. Smoking is banned at the local pub. The vicar wonders how many confidences she can bear. Even with these infrequent, understated brushstrokes, these people’s personal concerns reverberate with the force of suppressed pathos. Together, they breathe life into the village itself. Meditative and contemplative, the novel lingers like mist.
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Rachel Sona Reed is a social scientist by training and a writer by trial-and-error who applies these predilections to the social sector. She has published the blog “Contemporary Contempt” since 2011 and explores the lives of inanimate objects at tinyletter.com/lostisfound. Once upon a time, her research explored the intersections of consumer culture, gender, semiotics, and animal-human relationships. She is not as pretentious as she sounds. Peanut-butter-and-jelly remains her favorite sandwich.