Man Booker Prize 2017 long-list reading guide: On Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13
Reservoir 13 is not your average 'teenage girl goes missing in the hills near an unnamed village' whodunnit. It is a different kind of a novel.
Editor's note: Up to 13 September, when the Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlist will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing all 13 books on the longlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders, and which ones you should read.
A teenage girl goes missing in the hills near an unnamed village at the heart of England. Search parties are organised. Police, divers, and reporters descend onto the quiet landscape. The girl seems to have vanished into thin air. And so begins Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13.
Sounds familiar? Sure it does. The missing girl from a picturesque town or village has become one of the most successful tropes in crime/mystery genre. From Jane Campion and Gerard Lee to Stieg Larsson to Mark Frost and David Lynch to Nic Pizzolatto, some of the biggest names in books, film, and television have used a version of it to tell their tales. So much so that the now seasoned audience more or less know what to expect from the sub-genre (yes, it's a sub-genre alright). And this expectation is exactly what McGregor plays on in his brilliant new book.
McGregor has built a bit of a reputation when it comes to unconventional storytelling. His debut 2002 novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, portrayed a suburban British street during the course of a day, through the lives of the street's various inhabitants. The book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and so was his So Many Ways to Begin (2006). In 2010, McGregor published his third novel, Even the Dogs, which explored a story of addiction through a series of fractured narratives.
Understandably then, Reservoir 13 initially feels like a departure from his past endeavours. Thirteen-year-old Rebecca Shaw's family is on a vacation in the Peak District for the New Year when she goes missing. She is walking down the hills with her parents one moment, and then she is gone. Just like that. As the search for her picks up, we are introduced to a number of characters populating the scene as the events from the village are broadcast across the country. But just as you expect young Rebecca to turn up on any page at any given moment, or someone to unearth some clues regarding the same, you begin to realise what McGregor has done with the novel.
You realise that the few dozen characters introduced are not there to fill the background of the mystery surrounding the missing girl but are all protagonists in a sprawling narrative. That this is not a novel about crime but the aftermath of an event. An aftermath which lingers on for 13 years.
Right off the bat, McGregor takes your expectations and upon them builds his slow burning tale of ordinary lives.The girl is not found on the first day, the first week or the first month. Her absence weighs down but life must go on, as it should. There are things to be done. Sheep are to be looked after, shops to be run, church to be taken care of. But McGregor's measured, clockwork-like prose never lets go of your attention.
People fall in love, fall out of love. Children grow up, the old get on with the rituals of their twilight years. Some leave for good, some come back. But the rhythms of ordinary lives are charged with tension as the missing girl is not forgotten. McGregor doesn't let you. There are clues to what might have happened to her. There are dreams. Expectations and realities. And the element of mystery, perhaps something even sinister lurking just around the corner, is never lost.
The book is divided into 13 chapters, one for each passing year. And every year is as much a study of the nature of time as it is of the characters. Certain events — fireworks on New Year's Eve, a cricket match, a dance in the village — repeat annually, giving the reader a gauge to measure the change. But it's not just the events in the village that draw McGregor's attention. Nature and the landscape are in themselves vital characters with whims of their own. Seasons change. There is snowfall, there is rain. Foxes give birth to young ones, birds migrate. Nature flows into characters flawlessly. The discipline and the attention to detail in every page showcase the backbreaking effort that has gone into the realisation of this novel.
McGregor showcases how expectations often guide our every instinct. Even the most mundane and grinding everyday occurrences are turned into a pulsating narrative because at the heart of it, a girl is missing. But as you get increasingly invested in the many lives in the novel and wait for a revelation, it is hard not to contemplate on the more subtlely explored ideas of change and closure. Just one other way the book works on the subconscious.
This is the kind of novel where you wonder what became of the characters beyond the last chapter. Their triumphs and losses. And what lurks beneath the surface as you, above anyone else, desperately search for the missing one.
Reservoir 13 is not your average 'teenage girl goes missing in the hills near an unnamed village' whodunnit. It is a different kind of a novel. A triumph in experimental storytelling.
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