Jon McGregor | 'I tried really hard not to toy with the reader, not to lead them down the garden path'

Jon McGregor | 'I tried really hard not to toy with the reader, not to lead them down the garden path'

It is an image grimly familiar from countless television news bulletins; a line of people moving slowly across open ground with their heads down, searching for any trace of a vulnerable person, often a child, who has been reported missing. When we meet in a Borough Market coffee shop, Jon McGregor, a tall, quietly-spoken man, explains that he has long wondered what it might be like “to be in that group of people, doing that search”.

“You always see a clip for a few seconds on the news but actually that activity must take an entire day. You must start off very focused on the job in hand but at some point, well, you’re walking across a moor for hours and hours, you would naturally fall into quite mundane conversation [but feel] guilt about doing that, about it being inappropriate.”

Imagining that search party was the germ of McGregor’s fifth novel, and his first for Fourth Estate, Reservoir 13 (April). It opens with the inhabitants of a village in the north of England, who together search for a 13-year-old girl, Rebecca Shaw, who has gone missing in the local hills while on holiday. To readers unfamiliar with his earlier novels that may sound like the beginning of a thriller, but McGregor’s interest is in “those cases that don’t ever get resolved, and how that affects not so much the people directly involved, but the people around them”.

In fact, McGregor describes Reservoir 13 as an “anti-thriller”. He says: “I’m very aware that I use the fact of the girl being missing as a hook to bring the reader in and to keep them going. I tried really hard not to toy with the reader, not to lead them down the garden path. Because what I’m interested in is, why do we always expect resolution from fiction? Why do we insist on it as a justification for having read the book, somehow, when life is so often not like that?

“It’s a story about a girl who goes missing and stays missing,” he says, and what unfolds is village life over the next 13 years - births, deaths, affairs, arguments, secrets and betrayals - all the ordinary life that must continue in the shadow of the missing girl. Each year is covered in a single chapter; every chapter begins, “At midnight, when the year turned...”, and then moves through 12 months as the lives of characters play out alongside the rhythms of the natural world.

The power of the novel is cumulative. Through meeting the characters briefly, over and over again, our understanding of them builds, so by the end of the novel they feel like people we know intimately. From young teenagers Liam, James, Lynsey and Sophie, who grow to adulthood over the course of the novel, to the vicar who leads the annual memorial service, to a school caretaker who hides a secret, McGregor’s powers of description are as noteworthy as in his earlier novels. He also repeats phrases to powerful effect: “The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex” is a refrain throughout the novel, echoing down the years.

Peak problems

The village in which Reservoir 13 takes place is fictional but McGregor has a clear setting in mind: the Peak District. “Of all the National Parks it is the one that’s accessible for the greatest number of people, because it’s between Sheffield, Manchester and Derby. It’s always been very well-trodden and it’s also got a particular industrial quality to it. There has always been a lot of quarrying, lead mining, and that carries on today. It’s sort of a pastoral landscape, but not really.”

Someone who works for the national park told him how common it was for people who live in the picturesque villages to have well-paid office jobs in the nearby cities, and for those who work in the picturesque villages to be priced out of living in them, instead commuting from Derby or Sheffield or Manchester. “So they drive past each other every day! That really struck me.” The novel is not explicit in terms of the economic tensions between the characters but it is there. From the sheep-farming family that has lived there for generations but is now “being killed” by the supermarkets, to the independent butcher that goes out of business with a devastating effect on a marriage, to the yoga-practising newcomer whose pottery shop fails to attract customers from the visiting tourists, the precariousness of rural life is evident.

But so too is the beauty and the wonder. McGregor’s descriptions of the natural world had me wondering if he had spent time staking out a badger set, which makes him laugh. “Um, no. The internet.” He researched widely and sent early drafts of the novel to a friend who lives in Derbyshire (McGregor lives in Nottingham), keen that his characters should ring true not just for city-dwellers but for those who actually live in the country.

Dark undercurrent

But beneath the beauty is a dark current running just under the surface: male violence against women. McGregor explains that it became a big driving force in the writing of the novel: “Whenever you get one of these ‘missing girl’ news stories, everyone is shocked and horrified and [it is seen as] as terrible: a one-off thing. Yet it does keep happening and it is the tip of the iceberg.” He adds the sobering fact that, “At least twice during the writing of the novel I had to change the name of the missing girl because there was a news story about a girl with the same name. It really hit home how regularly these things keep happening.”

Hidden violence in the novel is revealed by the newcomer who fled a violent partner; the son with special needs who begins to use his elderly mother as a punchbag; and the man whose possession of child pornography is considered by some to be not so bad because the images are of teenagers, not younger children.

Fourth Estate will reissue McGregor’s four backlist titles alongside Reservoir 13 (with stunning new jackets), including his Man Booker-longlisted début If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which is set on a single street in a northern town. But when I suggest he has always been drawn to explore very ordinary lives in his writing, McGregor corrects me gently: “My underlying interest is the idea that there is no such thing as an ordinary life, that everybody’s life is unique and odd and interesting and complicated. You don’t have to dig very deep to start pulling out stories all over the place.”