This book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Costa Novel Award, but it took me a while to get to reading it. When my copy arrived and I saw the lengthy, chunky paragraphs unbroken by direct dialogue, I put it aside. When I did start reading it, I wasn’t sure it was a book for me, but it grew on me and I ended up fascinated.
A thirteen-year-old named Rebecca Shaw goes missing while on a family New Year’s holiday in an unnamed village in the Derbyshire Peak District of England. A search and investigation follow, but initially nothing is learned about what could have happened to her. The focus of the book then turns to life in the village in the aftermath of the disappearance; the book becomes a kind of chronicle of the lives of the inhabitants over 13 years.
“It went on like this. This was how it went on.” These two sentences from the book are a good summary of the plot, if the definite article is replaced by “life.” Each of the chapters, after the first one, begins in the same way (“At midnight when the year turned . . .”) and then proceeds to describe the ordinary events in the lives of the ordinary people who make the village their home. There are births and deaths, marriages and divorces, triumphs and tragedies, devotion and disloyalty, kindness and cruelty.
There is a large cast of characters; we meet shopkeepers, farmers, teachers, the school caretaker, a potter, the vicar, teenagers, a yoga instructor, etc. At first, it is difficult to remember who is who and how the various characters are connected, but because characters reappear so often, any confusion dissipates. We don’t know everything about everyone but we know enough about each one that their major traits and concerns are remembered.
The events chronicled are often mundane: Cathy walks her neighbour’s dog, the reservoirs are inspected regularly, Irene struggles with her special needs son, teenagers write exams and leave for university, a mother is torn between wanting to pursue a career and taking care of her twin sons, shopkeepers struggle because of a lack of business. Some events are obviously traumatic for those involved but these are given no special treatment; in fact; they are often mentioned in an unemotional, flat tone in a sole simple sentence. There are sentences like, “Martin and Ruth Fowler separated” and “Jackson had a stroke and was taken to the hospital” and “on the local news there was a report of a man in court on child-pornography charges.” These life-changing events are given no more prominence than the rhythms of nature: “The bees stumbled fatly between the flowers and the slugs gorged” and “The first fieldfares were seen, gathered on a single hawthorn and chattering into the wind” and “There was weather and the days began to shorten.”
The message is that life goes on. Regardless of what happens, time does not stop: “The clocks went back and the nights overtook the short days” and “The clocks went forward and the evenings opened out.” The rhythms of life continue for both humans and animals: birds migrate and return, the community celebrates its annual festivals, crops are planted and harvested, animals mate and give birth just as the humans do. Rebecca fades from memory though she is not ever totally forgotten – that is the fate of all of us. In our absence, life will go on for people and for nature.
Despite its repetitive structure, there is suspense in the novel. Rebecca’s disappearance is remembered by the reader so some activities raise expectations. When the weeds are cut away in the river, will her body be found? Will the structural inspection of a reservoir yield information about her fate? Does the secretive school caretaker’s resistance to having the boilerhouse demolished have anything to do with the case? Will the walkers exploring the area make a discovery? Does the title suggest the site of Rebecca’s body? There are even villagers who could be suspects. Besides the man arrested for child pornography, there’s a village lothario who worries that “all his discretions [might] begin to unravel. He couldn’t afford for that to happen,” and a man who “drives to the disused quarry and took a sledgehammer to his desktop computer”.
There are also humourous touches. An annual cricket game is held with a neighbouring community and the villagers never win. One year, the annual pantomime is Dick Whittington, but at a parish council meeting, Clive “had concerns about the use of dick. Janice Green excused herself from the room for a short period, and on returning asked Clive how he would prefer that to be minuted. As is, Secretary, he said. As is.” The understated tone is perfect.
This book is unconventional. In its structure and use of the passive voice it breaks the generally accepted rules of creative writing, yet it works. Reading it becomes almost mesmerizing. By the end, the reader will feel as if he/she has taken up residence in this village.