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‘The Reservoir Tapes’ review: Jon McGregor pens an innovative follow-up

The novel offers another look at the events of the 2017 standout “Reservoir 13.”

Jon McGregor is the author of

Jon McGregor is the author of "The Reservoir Tapes." Photo Credit: Jo Wheeler / Catapult

“Reservoir 13” by the British novelist Jon McGregor was one of 2017’s standout novels. It begins with 13-year-old Becky Shaw going missing in an English village, and the reader settles in for what seems like it will be a thriller. No spoilers, but Becky’s disappearance slowly fades into the background and what emerges instead is an intricate portrait of a community, subtly pieced together over many years.

McGregor’s fresh and absorbing follow-up, “The Reservoir Tapes,” again begins with Becky’s disappearance, but keeps its focus there, allowing the tale to stand on its own, even if you haven’t read “Reservoir 13” — which you unquestionably should.

The new novel was actually written as a series of 15-minute podcasts that aired on BBC Radio 4 from October through December 2017. Each episode — now chapter — presents a single resident’s perspective on Becky’s time in the village before she went missing. These characters are generally different from those featured in “Reservoir 13,” both adding to the independence of the new work and further enriching village lore.

The result is much like reading a season of the podcast “Serial,” but infinitely more literary and much less deliberately plotted or manipulative. McGregor has a naturalist’s eye, with details worthy of a poet in the vein of Ted Hughes. And he keeps you invested in the mystery while resisting the urge to continually drop clues as to Becky’s fate.

In fact, he told the BBC that he aimed for exactly the opposite effect. “I wanted this to be about what happens when you genuinely don’t know,” McGregor said.

That uncertainty may frustrate readers looking for the conventional, but there is nothing commonplace about McGregor’s work. But it is from that innovation that so much of the thrill arises.

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