In his latest novel, “Reservoir 13,” Jon McGregor has revolutionized that most hallowed of mystery plots: the one where some foul deed takes place in a tranquil English village that, by the close of the case, doesn’t feel so tranquil anymore. Whether you find McGregor’s innovations brilliant or boring will depend on your tolerance for delayed gratification — very delayed gratification when it comes to the rudimentary questions of “what happened?” and “whodunit?”
Critically speaking, I’m on the fence. McGregor’s writing style is ingenious. Indeed, “Reservoir 13,” which was published in Britain earlier this year, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, a testament to its artistry and a tip-off that this is not, in any conventional way, a mystery novel. But, as admirable as McGregor’s achievement is, I frequently found myself looking for excuses to stop admiring it and read something else. Staying inside his finely wrought construction for long stretches of time made me feel wistful for Agatha Christie. I wanted clues to track, criminals to nab and, most of all, a timely solution that would lay evil to rest.
The opening paragraph of “Reservoir 13” describes the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl. Rebecca Shaw and her parents were enjoying a getaway in England’s rugged Peak District during the New Year’s holiday, but their vacation goes tragically awry on the afternoon the family takes a walk on the moors. Rebecca’s parents tramp the frozen ground at a brisk pace, while she dawdles. Her parents impatiently call to Rebecca to hurry up. When they turn around their daughter has vanished; it’s as though the earth has swallowed her.
In standard thriller fare, we readers would then follow police detectives as they comb the heather, interrogating hermits, village busybodies and the girl’s school friends. But McGregor deliberately invokes that conventional suspense opener to challenge his readers’ well-worn expectations.
Through the voice of his deadpan omniscient narrator, McGregor describes what happens in the village during the next 13 years. At first, Rebecca’s disappearance is all the villagers talk or think about. As years pass, the girl’s vanishing becomes just one more thing for the village to absorb into its long communal history.
Meanwhile, we seasoned suspense readers remain on the alert, waiting for those sporadic moments in the narrative when McGregor stokes our paranoia. We learn that a man named Richard Clark pays an annual visit to the village, at the very same holiday season when Rebecca disappeared. Was he involved? The school caretaker, an odd man by the name of Jones, lives with his troubled sister who “was never seen.” Has this grim pair stowed Rebecca (or her remains) in their house? Occasionally, the reservoirs near the village are mentioned. Are they connected to the title, “Reservoir 13”?
The inventive — and enervating — quality of McGregor’s novel derives not only from its refusal to bend to conventional thriller expectations, but also from its form. Paragraphs frequently run on for pages — monoliths of prose in which the minutiae of life in the village is recounted. McGregor’s omniscient narrator hovers above the village watching all and relating every development in a uniformly flat, democratizing tone. Updates about Rebecca’s case are accorded the same emotional weight as a villager taking a new job in the meat section of the local supermarket or a new yoga class starting up. Those bland details of everyday life fill McGregor’s mammoth paragraphs like foam insulation being sprayed into walls. Once in a very long while, however (every 50 pages or so), a startling update on Rebecca’s case suddenly emerges:
“There was talk of an environmental group setting up a protest camp against the new quarry. Les Thompson walked his fields in the evening while the sun was still warm on the grass. . . . In the beech wood the fox cubs were taken away from their dens and taught to find food for themselves. A white hooded top was found in a clough on the top of the moor, oiled a deep peat-brown and fraying at the seams. The make and design were confirmed as a match by the missing girl’s mother. The forensic tests took weeks and were inconclusive. Extensive searches were conducted where the top had been found but nothing further was unearthed.”
“Reservoir 13” generates suspense, not out of chase scenes or sly dialogue, but out of the extended narrative experience of waiting — waiting for something, anything, to break in Rebecca’s case. Maybe this is not so much a thriller, but a “post-thriller” — a novel that meditates on tragedy and its inevitable fading away in memory. No matter how it’s classified, “Reservoir 13” requires an extraordinary amount of patience from its readers; I suspect that most will feel that the narrative payoff doesn’t justify that demand.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Jon McGregor
Catapult. 290 pp. Paperback, 16.95