Reservoir 13 begins like any dime-a-dozen missing-girl mystery novel. A teenage girl on holiday with her family in England goes missing. The whole town turns out to look for her, and the news dominates the headlines… for a while. No trace of her is ever found. Do you think you know what happens next?

Reservoir 13 - Jon McGregor - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Does a hard-boiled heavy-drinking detective take it on as one last case? Does a plucky local teen become obsessed with the story and start a podcast? Does a family member or friend take justice into their own hands and set out on a vigilante mission? Nope! McGregor is up to his old tricks in Reservoir 13, turning your expectations on their heads.

You’ll learn next to nothing about the missing 13-year-old, or her family, or the detectives investigating her case. They all remain unnamed peripheral figures, going about their business in the background of the plot. Instead, this is the story of the town, a community disturbed by a tragedy in its midst but carrying on in its wake.

The narrative perspective is very removed. You experience Reservoir 13 as the town, rather than as any specific character within it. The story moves quickly, too – six months passes in the first twenty pages, a year in each chapter. It stretches out thirteen years, a neat little allusion to the age of the missing girl that sparks it all. People move to town, people move away, people get married and die, kids are born, businesses open and close – it’s all captured in McGregor’s tale.

McGregor’s writing style is a bit unusual, and quite ambitious (you can tell because he never uses punctuation marks for dialogue, ugh), but it still reads smoothly. I had to double back once or twice, to keep pace with the changes in direction and focus, but it’s surprisingly well done on the whole.

The tone and vibe of Reservoir 13 land somewhere between Max Porter and Evie Wyld. There are strong echoes of traditional pastoral novels, with lots of descriptions of local flora and fauna, the changing of the seasons and the impact of the weather. It’s quiet and intimate, but there’s a lot of water running deep in this still river.

In case I haven’t made it clear, I’ll state it plainly for the record: there are infuriatingly few clues about the girl’s fate, all the way to the end of Reservoir 13. Spoiler warning, or whatever, but I don’t think it’s a shock to say that he gives us no answers, not a one. The father is arrested for arson about a decade after his daughter’s disappearance, and the school caretaker is prosecuted for possession of child pornography in an apparently unrelated case, but there is no firm resolution for what’s ostensibly the central mystery of the book. Of course, that’s the Point(TM), but it’s still annoying if you’re a completionist type who hates ambiguity.

All told, Reservoir 13 is a quiet, creeping bummer of a book. It’s a well written one, masterful in fact, but a quiet, creeping bummer nonetheless. Another reviewer called it ” a chilling meditation on time, and loss through change”, if that gives you a better idea of what you’re in for, but either way your heart probably won’t be warmed by this one. We all die alone, or we disappear without anyone ever figuring out why, and you should probably have a bottle of wine ready for when McGregor finishes explaining those depressing truths to you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Reservoir 13:

  • “Joyce pranked us all with Ulysses and now McGregor is playing the same game, banking on the critics’ gullibility. Frankly there are better ways to pass your time…” – Thomas M. Elder
  • “This may be the most boring book in the universe. I stuck it out until the end and it wasn’t worth it. “Lyrical,” no it’s slow and overly liberal with descriptions of the environment. I disliked this book so much i was motivated to write negative reviews on multiple websites.” – Jeff
  • “More characters than the bible – less interesting than Countryfile – who on Earth wants to read that “it looked like rain”, “John raised his hat to Jane” and “a Blackbird rooted about in the leaves under a hedge”?” – Sony Victim
  • “Words fail me… as they so obviously did in the writing of this awful novel.” – Jeff