by Jon McGregor
I downloaded this book a while ago – in 2017 I suppose, when it was Costa Book of the Year and made it onto the Man Booker longlist. I’m not sure what inspired me to go for this particular book. It sat in my electronic library until a couple of days ago, when I was visiting my aunt who had a paperback copy in her bookcase. I asked if I could borrow it, thinking it would be a good read for the Christmas holiday (it was).
The book was not quite what I expected. The opening lines, the chapter structure (thirteen chapters), even the title, made me think that this was a mystery which would ultimately, if not pleasantly, be resolved. I was wrong – but perhaps this is already a spoiler. What you have here is a beautifully-drawn picture of a rural community in early 21st-century northern England. The residents of “the village” – we are not told the community’s name – lead their normal lives. They marry, get divorced, have children, work, play, sleep, get ill, die. They have relationships of various kinds with their neighbours. They observe, or don’t observe, the natural phenomena around them and the passing of the seasons – which the author describes in brief but stunning detail. The event with which the book opens, is the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl, a visitor to the community. She is last seen just before New Year’s Eve. The whole village turns out to help hunt for her, but they fail to find her.
Each chapter records the occurrences in one of the thirteen succeeding years. We learn of the lives of the different members of the village community, and how Becky Shaw’s disappearance affects them. They reflect on it – sometimes – but mostly they go about their lives in the aftermath of the incident. They are real people, living real lives.
This is an unusual, beautiful and reflective book. It is one that will, I think, linger with me.