Monday, 28 August 2017

RESERVOIR 13 by Jon McGregor, reviewed by Linda Newbery

A girl is missing. This trope has become altogether too familiar in recent years (and yes, I’ve used it myself, in Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon* - I’ll excuse myself by pointing out that I began it in 1997, rather than jumping on an already overloaded bandwagon). Jon McGregor’s novel begins with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl from a Peak District village on a winter’s afternoon, but it’s not the crime novel you might expect from this opening and especially not one of those whose plot hangs on a startling twist.

The girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She was looked for, everywhere. She was staying with her family in a village holiday let, and after her disappearance the parents return, intermittently and separately, the father sometimes behaving oddly enough to be treated as a suspect. Reservoir 13 is unusual in structure and style, spanning thirteen years, a chapter for each. We follow the lives of residents of this small village, location unspecified though with enough references to the Kinder Scout trespass, the well-dressing tradition, villages drowned beneath reservoirs and a crashed Lancaster bomber for us to place it in Derbyshire near the start of the Pennine Way. It’s unsettling at first that the viewpoint never settles on one or more main characters but circles around a great many, the focus often shifting within a paragraph from one character or group to another; but you get used to this, along with the brisk progression through the years. The omniscient narrative concerns itself almost as much with the yearly cycles of badgers, foxes, buzzards and goldcrests as with the human residents: In the beech wood the foxes gave birth, earthed down in the dark and wet with pain, the blind cubs pressing against their mother for warmth. I like to think that I’m fairly knowledgeable about wildlife, but had to look up “springtails”, which make frequent appearances.

McGregor uses short, often simple sentences, and dialogue is rendered without speech marks. To give the flavour of this: Inlets are probably clogged again, he said. Everything else all right? Yes, yes. Fine. He took out a pouch of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. She looked as though she had more to say. He nodded up at a bank of clouds over the moor, thickening. Weather, he said, and walked on. Mr Jones, she called after him. Will you let me get someone in? He stopped. It’s a decent boiler, he said. I’ll sort it. A goldcrest moved through the tall firs at the far end of the playground, picking quickly at the insects feeding between the needles. From the hills behind the allotments a thick band of rain was moving in.

McGregor plays with the reader’s expectations of what's happened to the missing teenager.Various possibilities are aired by the locals: there are old mine-shafts, locked-up cottages, a closely guarded boiler-house, and of course the several reservoirs, where the title and the number 13, which corresponds to the number of chapters, seem to be leading us. When walkers stray from the paths, children explore mine tunnels and the water-levels in the reservoirs sink to drought level, we anticipate a discovery; and James Broad, one of the group of teenagers who hung around with Rebecca, knows more than he’s told the police. In another novel these would be either clues or red herrings. But in many such novels the denouement, however carefully the ground is prepared, proves disappointing – the rug-snatching moment not enough for the reader to suspend disbelief. You won’t find that here, with the focus on the ordinary lives of the villagers and the rhythms of the seasons and of community life. Though still remembered, the mystery is in the background.

A woman moves to the village to escape from her violent husband. Teenagers grow up, go to university, return. Allotment crops thrive or fail. Relationships end, new ones develop. Pantomimes are staged each winter (yes, in some ways it’s like Ambridge); the parish council meets; words were had when someone offends. Social media arrives; contacts are made on Facebook; lambs are born, ewes lost in snowdrifts; there’s minor and more serious crime; a dairy farmer is forced by supermarket milk prices to the point of giving up. Many or even most of the characters' stories are characterised by disappointment and loneliness, adaptations and compromises. As the years pass and the missing girl fades into legend, we're reminded how old she would be now and how she might look.

A Guardian feature earlier this year explains that McGregor ‘wrote the book out of sequence, getting down all the scenes about individual families, and then all the lines about blackbirds, foxes, reservoirs and so on, storing the sections in a ring binder. “Then I went back and cut it all up and rearranged it. There was a point when it was purely collage.”’ At any point, he says, he was concerned with just one line. Perhaps that explains the sense of freshness and immediacy that gives this book its distinctive quality. There's something quite mesmerising in the telling; something seductive in the rhythms that reminds me of Cormac McCarthy.

Reservoir 13 is published by 4th Estate.

*published in paperback as Missing Rose, 2016

Monday, 21 August 2017

Guest review by Ann Turnbull: BLACK COUNTRY by Liz Berry

Ann Turnbull writes stories for young people of all ages. Her young adult novel No Shame, No Fear was shortlisted for both the Guardian and Whitbread awards. Since the 1970s Ann has lived a mere twenty miles or so north-west of the Black Country, so its accent is familiar – but her own accent remains stubbornly south-east London.

I came upon Liz Berry’s work by chance while writing a historical novel set in the Black Country. I was searching online for a book about the local dialect, and among the phrase books was Liz Berry’s book of poems. Poetry sounded like a more enjoyable way of getting the feel of the dialect so, by a happy chance, I bought that instead.

In the end, hardly any dialect found its way into my novel, but this book awakened in me a renewed interest and enthusiasm for poetry. I became immersed in these poems, loved them, and read them over and over again.

Black Country is a celebration of the region – its people, their work, their landscape and history. Like Liz Berry, I believe that the voices of ordinary people – those strong, resonant voices – should be celebrated. They carry, as folk songs do, the stories of working people’s lives and history. So here are the canals (‘cuts’), nail-making and chain-making industries, pits, pubs, food – and here is the authentic voice of the people:

“bibble, fittle, tay, wum,
vowels ferrous as nails, consonants
you could lick the coal from.”

There’s the world of work:

“Nailing was wenches’ werk.
Give a girl of eight an anvil and a little ommer
and by God er’d swing it,
batter the glowing iron into tidy spikes…”

And, when work was done, there were the pigeons beloved of colliers

“whose onds grew soft as feathers
just to touch you, cradle you from egg
through each jeth-defying tumble.”

There are sensual, lyrical poems about love and sex, funny poems, dark ghostly tales, poems based on family letters and stories. This is a collection of great variety – of ideas, and of styles and rhythms, with depths and subtleties that become apparent on re-reading. There is a beautiful precision in the use of language. On Christmas Eve the Black Country is ‘tinselled by sleet’ which ‘fattens and softens to snow’; a teacher ‘unhooked a high window on a stuffy day/and heard the room’s breath’; pigeons fly ‘jimmucking the breeze’.

The collection carries throughout the theme of a girl growing up and leaving home, and the imagery of birds is used to describe her awakening to adult life, love, sensuality and eventual flight:

“then an exultation of larks filled the clouds
and, in my mother’s voice, chorused:
Tek flight, chick, goo far fer the winter.”

What I love most about this collection is the warmth and tenderness that lies at the heart of all its variety. My own favourite section is the last, in which the poet returns to her childhood – in particular to her father who, the summer before she started school,

“…made me a boat of words
and pushed us off from the jetty into the Sea of Talk.”

This poem ends:

“Bab, little wench, dow forget this place,
its babble never caught by ink or book,
fer on land, school is singin’ its siren song
and oysters clem their lips upon pearls in the muck…”

Liz Berry was born in the Black Country and now lives in Birmingham. Black Country, her debut collection, was published by Chatto & Windus in 2014, and has received many awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Guest review by Caroline Pitcher: THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire

Caroline Pitcher loves writing stories. It’s like living lots of lives, not just one.

Her books include The Winter Dragon, Lord of the Forest, The Littlest Owl, Please Don’t eat my Sister, Diamond (Kathleen Fidler Award), Kevin the Blue (Independent Story of the Year),The Shaman Boy (East Midlands Arts Award for Cloud Cat),The Gods are Watching, Eleven o’clock Chocolate Cake, Mine, Silkscreen (Arts Council Award), and short stories such as Tam the Eldest, The Dolphin Bracelet and Our Lady of the Iguanas. 

Caroline has just ordered expensive new glasses ready to begin that novel that’s been in her mind all summer. See also her website.

Behold the man. Henry Drax, harpooner, smelling and sucking his fingers after readjusting his crotch, murdering a stranger and raping a boy in the very first chapter. You have been warned.

Drax is the wild, unholy engineer of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations. Even when he disappears into the vast indifference of the Arctic Circle, you’ll sense him out there, waiting. He’ll burst back into the story like an acid attack. No unhappy childhood or abuse excuse for Henry Drax. He is beyond reason, a morally null thing.

In the port of Hull in the eighteen fifties, Drax joins the crew of the Volunteer, a whaling ship owned by the rich and ruthless Baxter, who now has other plans for it. Baxter has hired Brownlee as captain, an odd appointment seeing as Brownlee’s last vessel was crushed to matchwood by a berg. Brownlee must appoint a ship’s doctor, and he thinks that Patrick Sumner, a shortarse hopalong, will do, because he is cheap and seems easy-going. Unlikely as it may seem, it is the Homer-reading Sumner who will stand up to Henry Drax. When first they meet, Drax stares at him for a moment as if deciding who he is and what he might be good for.

Sumner boards the claustrophobic, faintly faecal-smelling Volunteer. He is a disgraced army surgeon with a reputation in tatters, no explanation given yet. Every evening he takes twenty-one grains of opium to blur his past and after a concoction mixed with rum he dreams of wandering over the ice fields, seeing unicorn, sea-leopards, walrus, storm petrels, albatross - and polar bears.

Sumner is isolated from the crew as the ship slumps and pitches amid the seething hillocks of an adamantine sea. This is a world of harsh beauty and horror. Think mythic Melville, but also Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, and the Old Testament fierceness of Cormac McCarthy. Any women writers here?

Sometimes I had to snap the book shut to keep Drax and the savagery inside, but not for long. The suspense was too much to bear. The story gripped me. It was a while before I noticed it’s told in the present tense, which can irritate. Not here.

The scenes of seal-killing and whale-hunting are inevitably violent, almost too much for a veggie Greenpeace reader. I wonder if there’ll be co-editions in Japan, Norway and Iceland... There’s shock after cruel shock, blood, pus, shit, rape, murder, odd sex and non-stop swearing, but there are rare rays of beauty to light the desolation; the sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration. There’s also sly humour. When a priest woos the Esquimaux with crucifix, candles and Jesus, they find it secretly amusing, a form of exotic entertainment in the otherwise dull expanses of winter.

This is McGuire’s second novel and it won the RSL Encore award. He has recreated a lost world. He grew up near Hull, my distant hometown. My father worked in High Street, a few doors up from William Wilberforce House, so I loved the Hull setting with the cobblestones, Queen’s Dock, Bowlalley Lane, the Turkish Baths, the De La Pole Tavern and the Tabernacle, Charterhouse Lane, and yes! Caroline Street, but my favourite street, the Land of Green Ginger, is much too magical to feature here.

The narrative plunges like a roller-coaster built on ice. Sumner the surgeon sinks lower, even lower than you could imagine. There is some kind of redemption, and the ending has a scene of profound loneliness which has haunted me since I first read The North Water last year.

Monday, 7 August 2017


Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and author of children’s books, based in London. When not writing stories or not visiting schools, Chitra fills her well with her nephews, taking photos of flowers and birds, going to museums and attending dancing classes. Find out more at or follow her on twitter via @csoundar.

I was constantly moaning on Facebook about not writing enough. The truth was that I was writing a lot – but I wasn’t spending enough time ruminating on the characters and the plot. An artist friend who watched me whinge and moan suggested I read Daily Rituals – a book put together by Mason Currey, which actually started as a blog.

In his introduction, Currey says, “My underlying concerns in the book are issues I struggle with in my own life. How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?”

I was bogged down by the same questions – can you do creative work, write the next best British Asian middle grade novel if you’re working to a deadline? Can you do good work if you spend three days a week at a day-job and hardly have time to think about anything else? Can a modern writer who still has to pay the mortgage, bills and an occasional treat claim their place on the artistic pedestal?

I’ve often blogged about my writing process, the preoccupation with time, filling the well, spending time between writing and thinking.

So someone suggesting this book to me felt like a gift. It was unsolicited advice from the universe to let go of the how and just focus on the what – because if anything this book tells me there is no one way to do the “art”. What works for a writer in France in the 1800s might not work for Stephen King in a park trailer.

When I started reading Daily Rituals, I was amused and awed by the genius, pettiness and even the arrogance of many. While many respected the writing, some dreaded it and others could operate only in excesses.

Currey has chosen a wide range of writers, musicians and artists across generations, continents and some cultural diversity. Many of the accounts have been scoured from interviews, memoirs, newspaper clippings and such. But the short accounts from each artist reads like a story. A little glimpse through the window of a famous artist who we admire and would love to emulate.

Not sure if I can drink and dine out every evening like Francis Bacon or write in the family sitting room like Jane Austen surrounded by the noises of siblings, but I did find a kindred soul in Henry Miller. Like him I prefer to write from dawn to noon and anything I write after that is counterproductive to the work in progress.

P G Wodehouse and Stephen King have different rituals but they did solid work and had goals for each day. One writer I would have liked to see is Alexander McCall Smith whose rituals have been published widely. He is also a musician (apart from being a medical law professor) and he talks about his writing rituals here and here.

Writing places also seem to vary – from sheds to basement to a desk in the corner of a bedroom to writing with the company of snails. While some wrote after a coffee, others needed a stiff drink. Each of their muses seemed to ask for different things.

Did it stop my clamouring? Did it make me more confident of my methods? While any of these rituals cannot guarantee genius, it was reassuring to know that there is no way to approach it. There is no formula, there is no secret code that you get to find out only if you’re inducted into the hall of fame. There is just YOU. By that I mean ME. What works for me is surely only what works for me. I have to reflect on my own habits and discern the things that work and follow those rituals.

When we find that magic ritual – we should hold on to it. I know; it does cause huge amount of stress within our families.

o “I will not write until the genie appears out of this eco-lamp!”

o “I need to lock myself in the family bathroom for four hours in the morning to write.”

o “I can only write in cocktail bars between 6 pm and 9 pm and this entire table is taken for my enormous antique typewriter.”

Just kidding. Mine are much more sensible – I just live in a different country from my family or chloroform them until I’m done in the morning.

I wanted to share this book with all of you because we all wonder about the muse at some point – especially when there is a deadline and the words are stuck and wouldn’t flow down. Or we overwork – draining our creativity on to page and suffer from anti-social thoughts like – why do I have a family? Why do I have to take a shower today? What is the meal between breakfast and lunch? We feel guilty on days we don’t work, we get an idea during a holiday and we abandon our companions to the sharks in the ocean and hide in a dry corner with a notebook or a laptop.

So if you’re a regular output no-nonsense writer or I-write-when-I-want writer, this book will interest you. If not anything else it will give you the courage that whatever your method, there were more crazy ones out there!

Daily Rituals is published by Picador.