Friday, January 05, 2018

'Reservoir 13' by Jon McGregor

5 January 2018

One of my favourite episodes of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is ‘The Missing Page’ (written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in 1960). Tony Hancock is reading a salacious murder mystery (‘Lady, Don't Fall Backwards’ by Darcy Sarto) but when he gets to the end the last page has been torn out, depriving him of the identity of the killer. Desperate to know whodunnit, Hancock sets out on a quest to find the missing page. The idea of a crime novel without a solution feels inherently frustrating but Jon McGregor’s wonderful new novel ‘Reservoir 13’ very effectively subverts the genre. ‘Reservoir 13’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Matt Bates) starts with the disappearance of a 13 year-old girl, Rebecca Shaw, who has been staying with her parents in a holiday cottage in a small Derbyshire village over the New Year. “When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body warmer, black jeans and canvas shoes. She was five feet tall, with straight, dark-blond, shoulder-length hair.” This description of the missing girl is one of several phrases that are repeated so often through the novel they become poetic mantras. As the villagers join forces to search the moors and the police investigation begins to probe into all aspects of village life, Jon McGregor plays with our expectations, suggesting all the familiar tropes of a crime novel. But soon it becomes clear that the disappearance of “Rebecca or Becky or Bex” is really just a hook for a beautifully drawn portrait of life in a small rural community. The seasons pass, and then the years, and we get to know many of the villagers, following the interlocking network of their personal stories in an elegant and completely believable soap opera. McGregor writes in short, simple sentences which have a poetic quality that reminded me of that other literary picture of a village and its inhabitants, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’. McGregor’s omniscient third-person narrative makes no judgements, merely reporting events as they happen in a flat, matter-of-fact tone which seems to make them strangely more poignant. Events are also presented with the assumption that we already know the protagonists: there is no backstory and time moves relentlessly forward throughout the novel. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to reveal that we never find out what happened to Becky Shaw (though there are plenty of hints about a range of possible explanations). But this doesn’t make ‘Reservoir 13’ a frustrating read: it is an unusual and compelling novel and I didn’t want to finish it. It was very exciting, therefore, to discover the companion podcast series ‘The Reservoir Tapes’, being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and available to download as free podcasts. In the 15 episodes of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ Jon McGregor has written individual perspectives (‘Charlotte’s Story’, ‘Vicky’s Story’, ‘Deepak’s Story’ etc) which cast light on events before and after Becky Shaw’s disappearance. The podcasts introduce some new characters that don’t appear in the novel and many of them relate to a period before the start of the novel. But they completely integrate with what we know from the novel, forming an elaborate jigsaw puzzle in which everything starts to become clear – apart from the one thing we really want to know: what happened to Becky Shaw? See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b097n5h3 or search for ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ in your podcast app.

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