When A Great Concept Falls Flat

Jon McGregor has been long-listed for the Man Booker prize three times; the latest for Reservoir 13, a sleepy attempt at a literary thriller across the pond. The Man Booker prize is England’s highest literary honor for books written in English and published in the UK. Read on as we dissect this almost award-winning book, and whether or not we think it works.

Lara: I am going to start by thanking you for going out on a limb with me this month to read Reservoir 13. To fill in our faithful readers, Jennifer and I participate in an annual reading challenge. One of this year’s challenges is to read a Man Booker listed book from the past ten years, and this was the one that floated to the top out of the available options.

So before we dive into our thoughts, let’s quickly summarize the book.

Jennifer: It’s midwinter somewhere in England when a teenage girl goes missing. The usual efforts are made to find her (community-led search teams, news coverage, police investigation) and nothing turns up. Each chapter is one year since she disappeared, with the lives of village residents now the focus of events. Each section, I believe (in all honesty, I’m still figuring it out), is a month–so there are twelve sections within a chapter. And each section is one long paragraph.

Lara: I think that’s a good overview. I have to say that synopsis was what intrigued me. It posed itself as a quiet literary thriller. Unfortunately, what started as a great concept was poorly executed and left me slow to pick it up and ultimately disappointed by the end.

Jennifer: I think we might agree on a lot in this review! A rarity! The concept was promising. I liked the idea of seeing how this single event could reverberate across time and subtly affect the lives of the inhabitants of a small town or village. Great idea. Its execution was not so great. I think this–in my thinking–constitutes experimental fiction, in maybe a “soft-core” way. Soft-core experimental! It’s linear, yes. But all these one-paragraph section breaks. What was the impact on you?

Lara: I LOVED the concept. I loved that each chapter started kind of the same way at the same period of time:

Chapter 2: One year after Rebecca goes missing:
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.”

Chapter 3: Two years after Rebecca goes missing:
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from all across the village.”

Chapter 4: Three years after Rebecca goes missing:
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the Hunter place.”

Chapter 5: Four years after Rebecca goes missing:
“At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the television in the pub and dancing in the street outside.”

And so on…

But I didn’t love the number of characters he introduced, Rebecca’s classmates and various adults/families. There wasn’t enough time or information to build a connection to them all, and that made for difficulty in remembering each character, their backstory, and their connection to the missing girl. I thought it would have been a stronger narrative to focus on a couple of her friends and her parents (who move away and are only gossiped about after the fact).

Jennifer: I felt a rather serious disconnect. I was never super into it. I would be casually swept into a story. Austin and Su Cooper had twins. Richard Clark moved away, but still has a very serious love for a local woman. There’s a stroke victim, a widow, a few teenagers. A whole set of characters haunt these pages. Surprisingly and sadly, I was never all that interested in their fates. I was mildly drawn in.

Also, it’s significant that the promise of reverberations is actually not fulfilled. Did this affect the town through time? Were these people impacted? I suppose so, but I never really saw how–and that was the draw of the book.

Lara: I totally agree. It seemed like a snapshot in time, but it it seemed to promise more than that. I most liked the story lines that involved Rebecca’s peers and James in particular. He was the last person to see Rebecca alive and you learn that he has feelings of guilt about it, but the author only addresses this on a surface level. There could have been a lot more depth and, for me, it just felt flat.

Jennifer: SPOILER ALERT! I also really hated the end. Basically, it just ends. We never find out what happened to the girl. And there you go. So much for that.

Lara: So much for that is right. We both wish there was more to say, but there’s no point in blabbering on when there’s more reading that can be done.

Let’s close with a warning: Read Reservoir 13 at your own risk. And if you love it and think we are off our rockers, tell us!

Next Up!

Join us in November when we chat about Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. 

Until then… Happy reading, Snotties!


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com 

Want to see what Lara is up to? Go to www.onelitchick.com