Reservoir 13: Guest Review by Francesca Mesce

Francesca Mesce
Mon 29 Jan, 2018

On the coat-tails of a Costa Book Award, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 turns away from a conventional thriller in favour of contemplating the lives of British village-folk. Francesca Mesce reads…

Reservoir 13 has all the elements of a thrilling page turner lined up neatly in a list: a quaint village in the Peak District is the setting, where, on a late winter’s day a family walk goes awry. A girl is missing. Last seen dawdling behind her parents on a frost covered trail, Rebecca Shaw has disappeared. The village is frantic and the searches begin; the reader is one of the volunteers combing the hills and riverbanks. We’re alongside the Jacksons in the town hall waiting for news. However, that is all we do. Wait for news of the vanished girl. 

This is where Jon McGregor’s thriller checklist ceases to apply. Instead of completing the typical thriller components in the story of a missing child, McGregor is the omniscient observer, narrating the day to day of a village struck by tragedy. Each chapter marks a year since Rebecca’s disappearance, with thirteen years being the period in which we learn about the village’s residents. The reader is invited to annual events such as the New Year’s Eve dance - an event immediately cancelled in the first chapter “under the circumstances”. When reservoirs are mentioned in the novel, our ears prick and we begin to wonder what lies in reservoir 13. 

“Jon McGregor’s novel is a study of human emotions at its best”

New-born twins age before our eyes, heart attacks and loss happen, yet Rebecca Shaw’s presence on the page dwindles. The suspense generated in the first couple of chapters is fed only with a few nods to the disappearance, reminding the reader that this story is still that of a missing girl. With that in mind, it can feel quite arduous to sit down and read Reservoir 13. Instead, the thrill of this novel is in the way McGregor writes his narration. We are immersed in the Peak District and its folk, learning their behaviours through dialogue and commentary that merge into one. 

McGregor observes with knowledge on how much to give and when to give it: we are not smacked in the face with obnoxious character behaviours but subtlety hinted at with what they repress, what only McGregor knows and allows us to know. With that in mind, it is clear to see the critical acclaim Reservoir 13 has generated: a 2017 Costa Award winner and longlisted for the Man Booker prize. There is no doubt Jon McGregor’s novel is a study of human emotions at its best: each character is familiar enough to be a real person you or I have encountered.

Reservoir 13 is now out in paperback.

The accompanying radio plays can be listened to here.

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