Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 was long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and won the Costa Book Award for Best Novel that year as well. It was also nominated for the Goldsmith Prize for experimental fiction, about which he had this to say:

“It felt like a very experimental book while I was writing it, but it’s not necessarily that experimental on the surface, although it demands quite a lot of the reader … a certain patience.”

In terms of the story, it is an impersonal narrative, a series of snapshots into the lives of people living in an English village, beginning in the year that a teenage girl goes missing, an event that in small ways touches the lives of most of the residents, an event that remains permanently associated with it.

The novel continues to zoom in on village life, each chapter equivalent to one year, each subsequent first sentence of the chapter referencing the local fireworks, each chapter resembling a kind of closely knitted pattern. As you would expect, over the years, young people grow up and leave, families are created and fall apart, seasons pass, work is done, animals tended, relationships formed, the past remembered. Likes waves breaking, there is a continuous monotony to life in just another ordinary village, where once upon a time a girl went missing.

“His sister wanted to know where the Tuckers had gone and who would move in next. He said he didn’t always have the answers. He asked her not to ask so many bloody questions, and when the tears came he said he was sorry. It went on like this. This was how it went on.”

I agree it is an accomplished novel, it has been well thought out, structured, it’s almost a piece of modern architecture, in its linear, logical, detached approach. However, I found it almost impossible to be swept into the narrative without the constant awareness of the author’s orchestration and presence, even in some of the voices. It felt very controlled.

There is much that is clever, and intellectually it is something to admire. I reread the comments made on the cover and thought, yes, all that is true, so what did it lack for me? It made me think of a review I read recently for Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar reminding me of that reading experience, which was the anti-thesis of this one. Of being drawn inside a story versus feeling completely outside of it, of the open air art installation versus the museum piece vitrine.

“The passive voice was really deliberate because it just feels very English to me,” McGregor says. “It’s a gossipy village, but they would never think of themselves as gossips. ‘Somebody was seen.’ They’re not going to say: ‘I saw so and so.’ Small communities can be very inclusive, but they can also be very claustrophobic.”

Some books you read and you yourself are far far away from what is happening, you are unable to empathise or relate, you see words on the page, that speak of things happening in and around people, but they are told in a way that keeps them on the page, they refuse to enter your imagination or evoke empathy.

And then there are books that by some kind of magic awaken the imagination, they affect the senses, they can make you feel hot, cold, dehydrated, in pain, terrified, joyous, curious, relieved, all manner of emotions and feelings, and you feel relieved almost that it’s only a story, you will recover. They are not always comfortable, in fact I love reading outside my comfort zone, about other cultures, other experiences, other everything than the familiar.

Reservoir 13 certainly provoked the analytical part of my brain, in fact everything it provoked was in that left hemisphere of the brain and that’s possibly why it was only an okay read for me, it was too far in one direction, admirable as that may be, it leaves me with little to say about it, and little of an impression.

So I’ll finish with a link to the author in an interview with Justine Jordan from The Guardian, which gives greater insight into what the author was attempting to do.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Jon McGregor: ‘I’m allergic to trying to make points in fiction’ – The prizewinning novelist and short story writer on capturing daily rural life and the joy of a bad review

Have you read it? How was the reading experience for you?



16 thoughts on “Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

  1. I really struggled with this one, and I’m a big Jon McGregor fan. Like you, I found the style needlessly flat and distancing, and I didn’t actually think it was especially original – I thought he’d done it all much better in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was my first encounter with his work and I expected to like it a lot more, I understand now what he was attempting to do and I can see why perhaps it might appeal more to those who relate to ‘English village reservedness’ but I found that somewhat alienating, which could be said to be intentional after all, but certainly not what I’m looking for in reading.


  2. Brilliant review. I think I read one Jon McGregor novel years ago, which I liked but wasn’t bowled over by. This one does sound very appealing, though I am struck by what you say about your awareness throughout of the author’s presence. I think that might bother me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would be interested in your thoughts on it, although my sense, knowing your reading habits, would be that it may be a little too detached, you have all the characters there, but in the literature that you like to read, we are usually brought more intimately into the lives of the characters (as women writer’s so aptly are able to do). My perception of the author’s presence might be wrong, it was just, I found myself often wondering if this paragraph was the authors POV and not the characters, so not as blatant as an authorial voice, more an annoying suspicion thereof.


  3. You saw my Goodreads review, so you know that I couldn’t make it through this book, for which I have felt sheepish and regretful (though if I’d known it would be nominated for a prize for “experimental fiction” I never would have picked it up — I’m allergic to that term!). I, too, found it impossible to sink into and enjoy. I couldn’t figure out what all the descriptions of nature and all the scenes featuring random villagers were supposed to add up to. I read that McGregor composed this book by adding gradually to two files, one for nature writing and one for plot, and then putting them together. To me that seems a strange and almost false way of building a novel.

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    • I hadn’t realised until today that it had been nominated for an ‘experimental fiction’ prize either, not my usual thing for sure. I am glad I read it through and got to the bottom of what it lacked for me, I had my suspicions beforehand, but I’ve heard such good things about this author, so I did wish to get firsthand reading experience. That is indeed a different way to string together a novel, I guess that’s experimental, but too intellectually constructed for my liking. I like my authors to get carried away and inspired by their story/characters, not to be so in control of it.


  4. I’ve come to understand that this is what we call a Marmite book in the UK. I’m one of those readers who love it for its lyrical writing about the rhythms of the natural world and for its depiction of the effects of Becky’s disappearance, like throwing a stone into a pool and charting its ripples. Great review, though, Claire!


    • I didn’t really find the nature writing parts lyrical at all, I have a habit of highlighting passages all the way through books and I hardly marked any in this novel, and those that I did weren’t related to the natural elements. I’m a Kathleen Jamie fan, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Rachel Carson with regards to nature writing, so I’ve been pretty spoilt as far as lyrical nature books go.

      I did appreciate how the village evolved and transformed, I saw it more like ocean waves, as there were many before these 13 and they will have continued, it just didn’t evoke anything in me sadly. I do recall that it was one of your favourites and I appreciate that too, because I enjoy your reviews and I’m often lead to great books by you, you are one of the reasons I really wanted to read this all the way through, so thank you too for commenting and interested readers (which I hope there are) should check out your review, for exactly as you say, this is a novel that is much loved by many.

      Susan’s Review at ‘A Life in Books’

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Really interesting review Claire. I’m a big McGregor fan, having read If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and keeping up with his work ever since. The library has just notified me that my request for this one has come through, so I’m interested to see what I’ll make of it!


  6. I finally finished Reservoir 13 a couple of months ago, having tried and failed to get going with it some 4-5 times previously. I enjoyed it very much in the end, particularly the detailed nature references (sorry – I know these did not move you!) and that sense of capturing the every day aspects of peoples lives – some of which linked with others in the village, some of which remained private. I thought that was all rather well done. I have also read So Many Ways To Begin, which I also really enjoyed, but have not been able to get in to any of his other books since.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m intrigued by this book now, having read your perceptive review and the insightful comments which have followed. The voice and presence of the author and narrator always interests me yet I haven’t properly determined my own position on it. Mostly I prefer to be inside the story as you describe, but I can think of occasions when looking in – and the passive voice, have worked very well for me. Maybe this book will add to my personal debate. I’m tempted to get a library copy and give it a go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do recommend you try it, when I say the presence of the author, it’s not like Italo Calvino, where he interrupts the narrative, it was more a sense I had (which is subjective and personal to my reading experience) so others may read it and not have that sense at all. It was a favourite read of 2017 for a few readers whose opinion I greatly respect, so I’d not wish my review to put anyone off and I’m certainly glad I read it, it’s an interesting one to discuss.

      Liked by 1 person

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