Reservoir 13 and My Booker Shortlist

Last night I finished the final book I’ll manage to read before the Man Booker shortlist is announced Wednesday morning, and I loved it.

Sunita said that Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a kind of “structural inverse” of Solar Bones

Whereas Reservoir 13 takes a distanced view of a village and slowly draws you into individual lives, community relationships, and the natural world, Solar Bonestakes one man’s life experiences and pans out to encompass the surrounding community. Both juxtapose quotidian events with large-scale change (especially environmental hazards and how we are changing our natural and built surroundings). The main characters are imperfect but humane and caring. Ordinary people turn out to be much more than their simple descriptions suggest.

That strikes me as about right. I loved both books, but Reservoir 13 might have a slight edge. A visiting girl disappears from a small village on New Year’s Eve, and McGregor follows the community through the next thirteen years. We catch glimpses of the characters, watch lovers come together and part, births and deaths, and the cycle of both natural and village life (so many lambing seasons, well-dressings, and Christmas pantomimes). Certain sentences repeat themselves, with slight variations, patterns a reader begins to look for. 

McGregor’s style could seem artless at first; he simply sets events side by side, his sentences simple and declarative. But there is a selecting hand at work, of course. Some big events happen offstage, between our glimpses into people’s lives, and are felt only in their after-effects. Some you can only guess at. Here’s a passage I chose more or less at random. The man who rented a holiday cottage to the missing girl’s family is talking to the vicar:

We’ve not re-let that barn conversion yet. It doesn’t feel right. Maybe you should come and exorcise it. He said this with a laugh, as though he wanted her to think he was joking, and as she got out of the car she told him to know that he and his family were remembered in her prayers. He had no way of laughing that off. There was rain in the evening of the sort it was pleasant to be in for a while, taking the dust from the air and leaving an exaggerated smell of early summer. In the beech wood the fox cubs were moved away from their dens.

We want to say (or I want to say) that the human story matters most here, but how does this paragraph let us?

The effect of McGregor’s style and structure is a slowly gathering power. I began to care more and more for the people, all of them, but also for the foxes and badgers and butterflies, about whether the footbridge would be destroyed in the spring floods again or there would be quarrying up by the Stone Sisters.

I thought a lot about loneliness as I read this. Many of McGregor’s characters, as in the passage above, have trouble connecting and communicating, saying what they need and want. And yet some, despite the apparent distances between them (there are some rather odd marriages), share love and friendship, care for each other, take care of each other. What is intimacy, exactly? Reservoir 13 made me wonder.

My Personal Shortlist

I’ve now read 10 of the longlist books, and a bit of an 11th that I don’t intend to finish (866 pp., people!). I’ve got Arundhati Roy’s book beside me and Fiona Mozley’s in the mail, so I will finish the rest soon. It’s been fun seeing reviews from and having conversations with other readers. I read some really great books, most of which I wouldn’t have heard of, or wouldn’t have read, if not for the list. But please, if I say I’m going to read the whole list next year, someone stop me!

The Shadow (Wo)man Booker panel posted their shortlist today, and mine is quite similar:

Where I disagree with the shadow panel ladies is on George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardowhich I grew more critical of in retrospect. But it was also the first one I read, so maybe that’s unfair. I can see a case for it on the shortlist.

If pushed, this is more or less how I’d rank my list, but I’d be thrilled to see any of the first four win and not too disappointed if the others did. It’s still possible that one of the two remaining books could knock something off the list.

I liked so many of these books so much that I’m really excited for the announcement. Don’t mess it up, Real Man Booker panel!




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12 Responses to Reservoir 13 and My Booker Shortlist

  1. Reservoir 13 is one of the books I have yet to read but if it has that emphasis on pattern then I must move it up my list. All my research work has been on pattern in narrative so this is clearly a book for me. I’m afraid I am the lone voice against Home Fire. I simply couldn’t believe in Karamat Lone.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I feel that I need to read it again with attention to the patterns and repetition, because I suspect there is a lot I missed the first time. Your earlier comments made me rethink Home Fire. I still like a lot about it but I wonder if the elements of plot/characterization that felt more forced are as deliberate as I first thought.

      • All the reviews I’ve read have contained remarks along the lines of ‘this is a brilliant book – I had some concerns/trepidations/ thoughts about false starts – but it’s a brilliant book. But if so many people had those concerns, is it? I wonder if the subject matter makes people wary of voicing concerns?

  2. Sunita says:

    I’m so glad we agree on this one! It’s still at the top or tied for tops for me. I can’t really choose among this one, Solar Bones, and Autumn. I’m in the middle of Home Fire right now and will finish today come hell or high water. There are a few things in it that are bothering me but I need to read the whole thing before I can make a useful assessment.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think we have the same top three for sure. All three felt to me as if they never, or almost never, made a mis-step. Expertly crafted without being in-your-face or pretentious about it (although I imagine some readers will experience them differently!). The great thing for me about this project has been the renewal of my reading energy and enjoyment. I don’t know when I last read so many books in six weeks or enjoyed my reading so much. I hope that’s momentum I can keep going through the fall.

  3. vatnsmelona says:

    A gorgeous review! I loved reservoir too + would like to see it shortlisted. Our prediction lists are rather similar…. I’m not sure on days w/o end but it’s has received a lot of good press…. exciting times!! —-

  4. rosario001 says:

    I’ve almost finished this one, and I’m loving it. I agree completely with your review. It’s so beautifully written, and so effective.

    I’ve only got 4 that I haven’t read at all, 4 3 2 1, History of Wolves, Elmet and The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness. My shortlist has several in common with yours:

    Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
    Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack
    Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie
    Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

    Autumn and Days Without End were not for me, so I’m leaving them off my personal shortlist, even while I recognise their quality. I’m currently reading Lincoln in the Bardo, and I’m not really sure about it. It might win me over, though. The other one I might add to my shortlist is The Underground Railroad, although I liked it significantly less than the 4 above.

    It’s been a fantastic list so far, and I’ll be reading the rest of the books before the winner is announced, although I might have to force myself to read the Roy, if it’s not on the shortlist!

  5. Well, now that the shortlist has been revealed, do you think they ‘messed it up’? I’ve had a great time reading your reviews (and Sunita’s). I usually shrug off the Man Booker longlist titles as ‘not my cuppa’. Thanks to your reviews, I’ve been introduced to new stuff that I have enjoyed. Learn something new every day…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My biggest disappointment was that Reservoir 13 didn’t make the list. Solar Bones has already won the Costa prize, and though I think it’s much better than some that made the list, I am fine with spreading the prize love around to more books. They need all the help they can get! I also really didn’t think History of Wolves should have been shortlisted. I liked some things about the writing but I didn’t think it used the plot structure effectively and it just seemed disjointed in an artless way, rather than the crafted way some of the books did.

      But hey, like you, I got to enjoy some books/authors I’d never have read otherwise, and had fun talking to people about them, so it’s a win for me!

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