I don’t understand the hype around Reservoir 13. Maybe this is one of those books where you needed to read it without hearing Guardian Book of the Year, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and winner of the 2017 Costa Novel Award combined with misleading review quotes that call it a crime novel and a cunning mystery. My expectations were incredibly high and so far off the mark. That’s not to say this isn’t a poignant and reflective literary novel—because it is—but it didn’t blow my socks off in a “best book of the year” style.
This is not a crime novel. This is not a missing-persons case mystery novel. This is a very literary novel exploring what happens after a young girl disappears, and is never found. What happens to the town—its cultural fabric, the people, their psychology, and the relationships they have—over time as this incident becomes part of their collective history.
Midwinter in an English village. A teenage girl has gone missing. Everyone is called upon to join the search. The villagers fan out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on what is usually a place of peace. Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed. As the seasons unfold and the search for the missing girl goes on, there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together and those who break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals.
An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a tragedy refuse to subside.
Each of the 13 chapters begins at midnight on New Years, adding another 365 days to the duration that Rebecca Shaw has been missing. The slow, plodding nature of the narrative began to grate on my nerves. I waited for the salacious or juicy tidbits that come from small town living, and an omniscient narrator, but they never really came. Any character developments that would be considered shocking in most fictional novels were delivered with a certain distance—an almost clinical detachment. This narrative objectivity created a sort of ambivalence in me as the reader. I didn’t really care about what the characters did, I didn’t care when they were getting divorced, or struggling with raising twins, or dealing with a deviant relative.
Something about the prose never really hooked me to the story. The only emotion depicted was in descriptions of the landscape—the fields, the moors, the canal, the reservoirs. Any small seasonal shift and McGregor must describe it. But when McGregor describes a confrontation and leaves it as a cliffhanger, he never bothers to address it again. Perhaps this was the point, to have the characters become part of the landscape, to show how the villagers continued on with their life despite this terrible incident. I can appreciate McGregor’s literary style but I prefer a bit more storytelling in novels.