Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Like a Russian novel, it has too many characters with similar and confusable names and no index to reorientate the reader who loses her way. Then, as soon as we’ve found the thread, we move on to another character, switching point of view within the same paragraph. Paragraph? There are no paragraphs, but sections that flit here and there until we come to a break (fortunately, with only twenty-four lines per page in my paperback copy, there’s enough white space). The prose seems as flat as the moorland depicted on the cover, albeit with some exquisite sentences lurking within the heather. As for that wandering point of view, we’re not often inside the characters’ heads privy to their inner worlds, but hovering above the community party to the gossip conveyed like a Greek chorus. The passive voice is used repeatedly, with events unfolding less through the characters’ choices but the vagaries of climate, other people, chance. As we sometimes find in Alison Moore’s novels, life-changing events receive as much, or as little, attention as the banal; a divorce, or a new baby, no more important than Harvest Festival displays in church. Oh, and if you need quotation marks, there are none of those.
At first, I didn’t think I’d warm to this novel as others have done. While I recognised the territory of the extraordinariness of ordinary life the author tackled in his wonderful debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, this novel seemed lacking in the lyricism I remembered from there. But as I read on, as the teenagers shared drunken kisses and a teacher took the children to see the newborn lambs, as the crops grew in the allotments and snow was cleared from the road, as a widow walked her elderly neighbour's dog and the parish council meetings were carefully minuted, this community on the borderland between urban and rural, order and wilderness, became progressively more vibrant and real. Then I could appreciate the telling detail, the touches of humour, the shiny phrases amid the drab. Then the repetitions of certain sentences became, not an irritation, but a marvellous way of marking the continuities despite the passing years.
Like with my own novel, Underneath, readers expecting a classic thriller might be disappointed in Reservoir 13 but, for many others, it’s a literary treat well worth the (slight) effort of adjusting to the author’s idiosyncratic style. Once absorbed in its rhythms, this becomes an engrossing exploration of change and stasis, order and disorder and how, even when they take place on our doorsteps, big events don’t impact on us so strongly unless we’re directly affected, as each of us is the main character in our own lives. It’s also about the quieter, hidden and everyday violence that, unlike the disappearance of photogenic teenagers, rarely makes the news. However, others in my book group were more sceptical and had interesting speculations on what had happened to the girl (whereas I’d discarded that thread altogether). Published by 4th Estate, I bought my own copy.
Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey
Narrated in the third person from the mother’s point of view, Whistle in the Dark is an engaging novel about the craziness of family life. Jen must find a way of accommodating to not only Lana’s situation, but her elder daughter’s surprise pregnancy coinciding with a split from her partner, and her own estrangement from her younger colleagues at work. I might have passed on a light-hearted novel about the growing pains of adolescence and self-harm had I not enjoyed Emma Healey’s debut, Elizabeth Is Missing, so much. Her delightful portrayal of a woman suffering from dementia influenced my character Matty (who has a diagnosis of schizophrenia) in my current WIP, and hopefully third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.
The mystery of someone going missing obviously cuts across Emma Healey’s first and second novels, as does mother-daughter tension but what distinguishes them both for me is the mix of humour and compassion in the voice. Emma Healey pulls off the comedy of confused states of mind remarkably well.
I was less happy about the fictional therapist she forces Lana and her family to see. Even a psychiatrist should know that adolescents don’t appreciate being quizzed about their feelings and that family therapy entails rather more than inviting parents and siblings, if and when able to attend, to sit in on the index patient’s sessions. But regular readers will know that I’m fussier than most about such things.
Fortunately, I was able to forgive Dr Greenbaum’s therapeutic limitations because Jan’s sense of failure as a mother is so well portrayed. Her guilt and fear of getting it wrong prevents her from engaging with Lana in the way she needs. (Not that Lana makes it easy for her.) Whether describing Jen’s distraction or paranoia, musing on spirituality or examining the impact of social media, Emma Healey excels in the introduction of clever detail in a way that appears effortless but probably isn’t. (Although I think smells were sometimes overdone.)
Whistle in the Dark is published by Viking Penguin who provided my review copy and is a strong contender for one of my favourite reads of the year.