It is winter and a teenage girl has gone missing while on holiday in the Peak District. The whole village turns out to search the hills and the moors, the police hold a press conference and journalists descend on the village. This could be your everyday crime novel, focused on finding out what happened to Rebecca Shaw: did she fall and hurt herself; did someone harm her. Reservoir 13 is not your everyday novel. The structure is unique, the prose poetic. McGregor is more concerned with the life of the village itself.
The last days of August were heavy with heat and anything that had to move moved slow. At the allotments the beds were bursting with beans and courgettes, the plants sprawling over the pathways. The bees stumbled fatly between the flowers and the slugs gorged. The first lambs were ready to sell and Jackson’s boys were busy making selections and loading them into the trailer. At the cricket ground the annual game against Cardwell was lost. The girl’s mother came to the church from time to time. She arrived just before the service began, escorted by the vicar to a set in the side aisle which was kept free for her, and left during the closing hymn.
The novel is not particularly concerned with what actually happened to Rebecca Shaw but at the fall out. The cast is made up of the villagers, their lives as they grow older over the course of thirteen years. Kids who knew Rebecca before she vanished talk about what they remember, grow up and go to uni, their lives occasionally haunted by her memory. We see babies born, marriage end and new relationships begin as time ticks on. There are some stalwarts that crop up in each chapter: the turning of the year; the annual cricket game against Cardwell. Every so often there is a ‘sighting’ of the missing girl, or her father is seen around the village, reminding the residents. Otherwise, life goes on as usual but with a few adjustments – no fireworks on new year, parents more worried when their children stay out late, a suspicious eye cast upon the neighbours.
What struck me about this book is its commitment to the village as a whole. The local wildlife is as important as the humans who live in the houses. Fox cubs and badgers, the fieldfares – we see them born and move on and die as well. With such a large number of characters, it is tricky to care about all of them. We watch over them from afar, as though skimming over the surface of the village in one of those police helicopters that is occasionally dispatched to search for Rebecca. It is an interesting technique, along with the decision to have this crime (or is it?) in the background without every really moving it to the forefront of the narrative.
For a novel in which, it could be said, not a lot happens, or not a lot happens very quickly, it is surprisingly engrossing. Each chapter encapsulates a year in the village and I read on wanting to revisit certain characters – would Su cope with juggling her twins and her BBC job; would Richard convince childhood sweetheart Cathy to give things another go; which lucky lady would end up in bed with Gordon Jackson that year. It’s a bittersweet sort of book – as with all life there are ups and downs. A book I will remember having read without necessarily remembering much about. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made the Man Booker shortlist. But neither would I surprised if it didn’t. In a way it reminded me of Wyl Menmuir’s longlisted The Many from last year – there is no resolution but the journey itself seems enough.