This novel tells the story of a fictional, unnamed village somewhere in the Peak District. It's a geographical collage of real places squished into one, smaller location. Some of the landscapes and features will be very familiar to those of us who know the area; the cement works, the Seven Sisters stones and its occasional commune of hippies. Some less Midlandy readers may never have experienced the utter bafflement of beholding the spectacle that is Well Dressing, and might not know what a clough or a cob is. You will learn.
The catalyst of the novel, the arbitrary event from which we mark time is the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl, a tourist, who was staying in the Hunters' holiday let in the village one freezing New Year's. She is never found, and the case is never solved. Her name was Becky, or Rebecca, or Bex. The villagers turn out to search for her, they are invested in her fate. Though we never know what happened, the ripples of the event carry a long way, and resurface in unexpected ways. Though this death/disappearance weighs on the minds, consciences and imaginations of the community, it is not enough to halt time, and a new post-Becky normal is established. Life, as it does, goes on. The natural cycles of the plants, the wildlife, the weather continue. Village existence seems mostly unaltered, one year to the next, but as the plot progresses, long term changes in the village's existence begin to emerge, the character of the place itself is felt to subtly evolve.
The story takes place over a 13 year period, with each chapter following the events of a single year. Each chapter starts with fireworks, observed or unobserved, and each year has various perennial events come and go; the nesting blackbirds, the ripening apples, the lambing, the clocks going back an the nights overtaking the days, the well dressing boards go into the river, the harvest festival display is arranged, the parish council meetings are well attended or poorly attended. New people move to the village and are or are not accepted into the fold. Kids grow up and move away. People get divorced, people hook up. Businesses close down, allotments are tended. Arguments are had, problems are resolved. People keep pushing the Millennium stones off their plinths and the congregation fluctuates at the local church. Nature continues much as it always has, since before there were any people there to observe its business. In many ways, all is the same. In subtler, more unspoken ways the reader gets the sense that the days of communities like this are numbered.
It is by no means a detective story, despite slightly sounding like it might be on the jacket, but the lingering mystery of the missing girl hangs over the village. I loved that it wasn't resolved- it's the questions with no answers that transfix us the most. Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac killer are long-term cases all the more fascinating for never having been solved. It's why the media still hungers after leads on Madeline McCann; we hate to *not know*. I haven't read a book in a long time that just does not offer answers. Not even suspects. It just stops, and I liked that. Although. If I had to guess who knew what happened, it would be Clive. He doesn't miss a trick sat on that allotment. Nothing gets past Clive.
I loved the structure, the repetition, the way the author mapped the lives of an entire village across such a span of time. I loved how people changed, did things that surprised people, did things that everybody was waiting for. I loved how intimate it felt, how well we got to know ordinary people. I loved that there was very little dialogue, just reported speech disclosed by this omniscient narrator. It gave the whole narrative a gossip-y second hand vibe that felt powerfully in keeping with the village lifestyle, with its tight-knit cliques and characters. I loved the women in the novel- the ones that held enormous families together, the ones that had been brave enough to escape abusive spouses. The women who started businesses and cared for their learning disabled sons, and the late middle aged ones that renounce men for good and move in together.
McGregor so obviously has an incredible eye for detail. The landscapes are beautiful, the essence of the passage of time is devastating and all his characters are convincing; young and old, male and female, happy and distraught. They all get breathing space to mature and evolve, to have their own little crises and triumphs. The reader really gets the feeling that they hold the entire village in their hand. The author manages to be sympathetic to the community, but unsentimental about its place on its own timeline. Nature is observed, rather than morally assessed, and the whole reading experience feels quite cleansing and enigmatic. It's an incredible book; quiet and reflective but rich and rewarding.