In anticipation of the Costa Book Awards announcement on 30th January, I began feverishly to read Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. I stopped only when I forced myself to take a break and think some more on what I had read and, I’ll admit, to have a night’s fitful sleep before continuing. Between the afternoon when I had started reading and the morning when I finished, Helen Dunmore’s collection of poetry had won the award. I had announced just prior to this news that it was surely between Rebecca Stott’s In the Days of Rain and Reservoir 13. To me, the only reason it would not be the latter was that the novel won it last year and it was a different category’s turn.
Add to this that looking at the five winners cold, a novel has twice as much chance of winning. Three times as much chance, I suppose, if you include the children’s book (though it does not state clearly on the awards website that this has to be a novel). Why is there a first novel award but not a ‘first’ award for any other category? And does that cheapen the novels that win in this category? Sort of like saying, good try, you might be able to play with the other children one day. Because for me, not to keep harping on about this or anything, Elmet could have gone straight into the ‘novel’ shortlist. It wasn’t excellent for a first novel but just excellent. There are other examples than Elmet, but just to make the point. For all I know her publisher didn’t even enter her for the competition though I’d love to understand how that conversation went: ‘we’re entering you for the Booker but not the Costa…’ Seriously? Why?
For all this, the prestige that the awards bring to these books is crucial; I am absolutely behind anything that aids book sales and helps maintain high street bookshops. With no more than anecdotal evidence, it does seem that when books get more attention in the media and there is discussion around prizes like this one, people come into shops to buy them rather than buying a digital version. Something about having the book in your hands, going into the shop to see it and have a look at other books by the same author, talking to booksellers about what they might recommend alongside it – this is all helped by awards. Books like Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, to name a couple from past years, might have done well anyway but they were hugely boosted by the Costa Award. In the shop I worked in, one person had bought Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake before it won the Costa Poetry prize; this changed rapidly when it did. Not to mention, the prize money makes a huge difference to whether a writer can carry on in their profession, and also eat. I do wonder if it wouldn’t be better to distribute the prize money evenly amongst the five winners in their categories. I wonder that particularly in a year when they award the prize to an author posthumously.
So my prediction was wrong and I just don’t think someone could decisively explain how Helen Dunmore’s poetry is better than two novels, a children’s book and a biography. What I can say decisively is that Reservoir 13 is extraordinary. I had that wonderful experience of picking it up because I felt I ought to have read it rather than being hugely excited to and then realising I had discovered something very special indeed. It’s one of the best experiences in reading or in life generally.
The setup feels like that of so many crime novels. A girl goes missing when out walking in the hills with her parents. There is a huge search party with residents and mountain-rescue working alongside the police and all the trappings of news reporters invading the quiet village and a helicopter buzzing overhead. McGregor lays clues that I started obsessively to hunt for: different characters to follow, snatches of information about the girl, about the village, about her parents. But this is not a crime novel. There is no troubled detective or rule-bending private eye to try and beat to solving the crime. It’s not even explicit that a crime has taken place. There are many possibilities for what might have happened to her.
The girl’s disappearance forms a lens, through which McGregor watches the village. While life resumes some normality, it does so with the shadow of the girl hanging over the inhabitants. The girl went missing on New Year’s Eve and that night forever affects the turning of each year. This and regular motifs repeated or altered slightly lend a rhythm to the passage of time. So the novel begins with, ‘The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw’. This develops into, ‘The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’ and then, ‘The missing girl had not yet been forgotten. The girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’. At irregular intervals there are references to dreams or gossip about what may have happened to her; there are suggestions of accident, of violence, of planned escape. The different nicknames she was known by, the descriptions of the clothes she was wearing, the repeated refusal to refer to her as anything other than ‘missing’, surround the story and are then enveloped by it as the years pass.
Changes in nature as the year advances lend another cadence to the story: the St George’s mushrooms coming up on the bark chippings; the fox cubs moving away from their dens; the reservoirs filling; cracks in the ice of shallow puddles; bats seen leaving the eaves of the church at dusk; Brussels sprouts standing tall in the allotments; cow parsley collapsing into the hedgerows. The writing brims with these details and they form an ever altering chorus in the narrative of each year.
Against these details are set the annual traditions of the village. Intricate designs are approved and the well-dressing carried out, the parish council alters ever so slightly but predictably, the park ranger takes samples from the river in the exact same place, fewer and fewer people attend the intimate Ash Wednesday service, fewer and fewer people go carol singing, ‘Mischief Night’ is celebrated and shunned to varying degrees, the school boiler breaks down, the pantomime is inexplicably attended by all, the footbridge breaks and, a new institution: remembering the girl. Someone sees her by the quarry, news reporters return to mark anniversaries, a top is found matching the one she was wearing, the boy who liked her recalls her visit the summer before the disappearance.
There are ways in which we find out very little about Rebecca yet feel connected to her, just like the villagers. The parents had been on holiday in the village for a second time, renting a converted barn from the Hunter family, when it happened. In one way or another, they never quite leave. The mother stays for months before she can finally give in to the knowledge that her daughter is hardly about to knock on the door of the barn. She goes to church and sits at the side away from the villagers. Jess Hunter tries to go round to the barn and offer support. The vicar speaks softly with her. She is seen occasionally in the village in the following years. The father, separately, is observed each year, a silent figure standing on the hills or by the quarry. Later he is linked to fires in the outbuildings of the farms that have begun to occur each New Year. The villagers hear of the parents separating, coming back together and separating again. They collect information and know nothing.
Similarly we collect information about the villagers: about Irene and her disabled son; about Ruth and Martin’s business failing and later their marriage; about Jackson’s boys struggling on with the sheep farm; Richard who visits his deteriorating mother; Cathy who walks Mr Wilson’s dog; Susanna, the newcomer who starts a yoga class; Gordon’s pattern of seducing women of all ages; Lynsey and Sophie’s almost indestructible friendship; Tony who runs the bar; the Fletchers who have a twenty year age gap in their marriage; the shadowy figure of the ‘widower’ who buys the Tucker house and turns out not to be a widower at all; and the story that rather broke my heart and puzzled me in equal measure of Jones, the school caretaker, and his agoraphobic sister. I felt like I knew these people in a strikingly different manner to that of following a handful of characters for an extended period. Here, McGregor drip feeds you information, observes little moments of interaction and occasions when people are alone. I found myself filling in the rest, readjusting to new information, picturing for myself Geoff Simmons and his whippet or Richard’s awful sisters. It’s a powerful and oddly passive way of telling a story. There are no speech marks around people’s words and the reader gives them voice and intonation. Actions are heard of or observed from a distance. The snapshots are brief yet insightful enough to evoke a continual story.
There are moments of gentle satire of a small community too. Susanna is taken aside to have it explained that she should really have lived there a few years before speaking at village meetings. She has to learn too about her allotment; Clive bans her from big ideas, from adding a bench and absolutely from buying wind chimes. The cricket game against Caldwell is lost almost religiously. William is thrown out of a committee meeting for expressing how he feels about another villager’s parking skills in more than choice language. Irene tells the same story every year at ‘Mischief Night’ about when her husband hid a whole herd of cattle. Mr Wilson makes Cathy sponsor him £5 a length in a swim, promising that he can only do five lengths and then proceeding to do twenty-one. A little like the villagers, you enjoy these moments without forgetting the missing girl.
McGregor has gone on to write a prequel, The Reservoir Tapes, in which individual stories are told by the characters and far more revealed about them. (Or did he write it before Reservoir 13? I would be fascinated to know.) The question of whether to read it rather plagues me. While I need to know more about this village, thanks to how wholly his writing has invested me in it, I also find that the book stands alone as something of a masterpiece. It’s an awful over-used term but I apply it here. The voice he has employed in Reservoir 13 is so inventive that I do not want to risk infecting it with something else. It’s intriguing to wonder if McGregor just couldn’t quite leave it alone, having discovered this place, these characters, the wood-pigeons and foxes and reservoirs, the community and the individuals, the new life and sad deaths, the melancholy and the humour – if it’s hard for the reader to let go at the end, how much more difficult must it be for the author. Finishing this novel, one is left with a rather mournful feeling, but there is also such a sense of rhythmic continuation that it is never really over. One can still see the young goldcrests fattening for the winter, smell the cows waiting to be milked, hear the rustling of nests being rebuilt at the heronry and imagine the dreams of finding the missing girl.