Saturday, 27 January 2018

Book 3 - 2018: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

I listened to this book in an unabridged Audible edition, and it is a book that very much suits the audio form. It is less a narrative than a flow of words, in which the author chronicles, in a tone that is not quite indifferent, the life of a village over a period of thirteen years, starting from the year in which a teenage visitor goes missing. The author's intention seems to be to present the ebb and flow of life in a small community, building up an understanding of the way in which time rolls on, demonstrating the insignificance of individual lives in the scheme of things and the mystery of human behaviour.

The writing is beautiful, and the book has a slightly mesmeric effect - at least if you listen to it; were I making the effort to drag my own eyes across its pages, rather than having it read to me, I suspect I might have grown bored with the novel's attempted refusal to get involved with any of its imagined characters. Leaving aside questions about why a novel that keeps its characters at a distance might be a novel worth writing, the attempt to do so is not successful anyway. Despite his efforts to remain at arm's length, the author cannot avoid favouring some characters over others, providing glimpses of some internal landscapes, while still barring us from the majority. For example, while Mr Wilson is never allowed an instant of inner reality, his neighbour Cathy is afforded that privilege in their interactions, which at crucial moments are described not from the lofty narratorial position that the author is usually aiming for but very much from her point of view. Similarly, only a small number of the village's occupants are actually given individual life at all. We are aware of a shadowy mass of others, via the regular passive statements of their collective awareness of who is seeing whom and what is going on.

One suspicion I had as I listened was that the author might actually find characterisation something that lies outside his range of talents. This suspicion was reinforced by a listen to some of the Reservoir Tales he has written for BBC Radio 4, in which he does provide closer looks at individual characters from the book; the ones I listened to struck me as flat and banal, detracting from the strange, enigmatic beauty which is the book's achievement.

In short, it seems to me that the author is almost completely successful in realising his ambition for the book, which is to portray life - both human and natural; the life cycles of fox families, the flowering patterns of wild flowers recur across the years - in a small community, but to eschew all effort to explain it. Whether such an ambition is worthwhile, I am less certain. The book seemed to me to have something in common with hyper-real painting, in the sense that it is hugely impressive, but shallow, detailed but lacking in depth. Despite the width of its canvas - the timespan of the novel is more than a decade - the book lacks sprawl and occasionally it crossed my mind that this might be how a novel written by artificial intelligence might turn out. McGregor can describe things beautifully; I hope in his next project, he will let his imagination run a bit freer and produce something a little less icily schematic and controlled.


  1. May I recommend a book to you?
    A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
    I would love to hear your opinion.
    Happy reading.
    Anne G

  2. Thank you. I've never heard of it, but will go and find out more.