Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 won the 2017 Costa Novel Award and has been heaped with fulsome praise by everyone from George Saunders to Sarah Hall (‘He leaves behind all other writers of his generation’). Amazon and Goodreads are full of glowing 5-star reviews, though with a significant number of dissenting one-star reviews alongside them. Quite a few reviewers, like me, didn’t finish the book. I abandoned it at the end of the first chapter, 30 pages in, and here are the two main reasons why. I won’t reveal the book’s plot as there basically doesn’t seem to be one. There’s a superficial storyline about a missing girl but in general – I’m basing this on the reviews I read – it’s about the ordinary lives of the people in the small English village from which the girl goes missing.
One. The book is written in an extraordinary style with the structure of virtually every sentence the same, namely a simple declarative statement usually beginning with ‘The’ or ‘A’ or ‘He’ or ‘She’. This creates an excessively monotonic, indeed monotonous, effect upon the reader – at least it did upon this reader. It’s a bit like a musical instrument that only plays one note. Here, for example, is the first word of each sentence on the opening page: They… It… The… When… A… They… She… She… They… The… The…
Two. The book is inhabited by scores, if not hundreds, of characters, none of whom – at least in the opening chapter that I read – is individualised much beyond being given a name. Worse, the names in question are invariably common English ones so that it becomes practically impossible to distinguish between the characters behind the name. By way of illustration, here are the surnames of every character introduced in the first dozen or so pages: Shaw, Hunter, Jackson, Dale, French, Simpson, Smith, Bowman, Hughes, Thompson, Carter, Fletcher, Cooper. Likewise the forenames: Rebecca, Tony, Jess, Lynsey, Deepak (what’s he doing there?), Sophie, Andrew, Irene, James, Liam, Jane, Les, Sally, Martin, Ruth, Gordon. And yes, of course we realise this says a lot about the ethnic diversity of small English villages but does it have to be so obvious? Even good old Anglo-Saxon names aren’t always of the Smith and Jones or Tom, Dick and Harry variety.
I should emphasise here that I have nothing against experimental writing or innovative literary styles. My favourite writers include the likes of George Saunders, John Barth and even, on a good day, Georges Perec. But sometimes one has the feeling – as I also do with the work of Ali Smith – that the experimentalism or innovation is there for its own sake and not for the sake of the book, let alone the poor put-upon reader.
The best novel of 2017? Do me a favour.
POSTSCRIPT: A couple of weeks after writing the above, and I’ve just read – and enjoyed! – The Reservoir Tapes, McGregor’s short collection of monologues by characters from Reservoir 13. Here he writes simply and often beautifully about the everyday lives of ordinary people – though such a description makes it sound misleadingly like radio soap The Archers – inhabiting a series of voices that provide back stories to the novel and together cohere into a satisfying whole. It’s a puzzle to me why he didn’t adopt a similar approach in Reservoir 13. Or, loath as I am to admit it, does the fault rather lie with me and my own impatience as a reader? Perhaps I should give the book another try.