Posts Tagged ‘Jon Mcgregor’

‘Reverse Engineering’ – Modern Short Stories Disassembled by their Authors


‘Reverse Engineering’, a collection of short stories by various authors  (2022) – 170 pages


I read collections of short stories by various authors for my own purpose. Usually in a collection I will find that one story which I like more than the others. In that case I will often later get a novel or an entire story collection by that author alone. Anthologies are a good way to try out a number of authors to find those few who appeal to my individual taste.

The stories in this anthology have nothing in common that I am aware of, except all examples of vivacious diversity.”

In ‘Reverse Engineering’ the editor, Tom Conaghan, has re-published one of the more acclaimed stories written by each of these authors, and then discusses that story with the author. The authors included in order of their stories are Chris Power, Sarah Hall, Jon McGregor, Mahreen Sohail, Jessie Greengrass, Irenosen Okojie, and Joseph O’Neill.

How did the author achieve the effects of their story?

All of the authors seem to agree that a story is powerful because it is not completely determined by the author ahead of time. In other words, it is not all cut and dried, not all prearranged ahead of time. This allows room for the imagination, for surprises. Perhaps a good story goes beyond its author’s original intentions.

I didn’t see it coming either. You don’t want to see it coming, if you’re the writer. Because if you don’t, neither will the reader.” – Joseph O’Neill

This is a good solid collection of short stories. I had read only one of these authors, Jon McGregor, before. I quite enjoyed the stories by Chris Power, Sarah Hall, Jon McGregor, Mahreen Sohail, and Joseph O’Neill. My favorite somewhat surprisingly was ‘Hair’ by Pakistani writer Mahreen Sohail. ‘Hair’ is about the somewhat universal way young men and young women interact, using the metaphor of cutting or not cutting your hair as the example.

She is eighteen, almost nineteen, and most of her friends are dating the men they believe they will marry. Surely a man she is here for right now in the most impossible moment of his life will want her by his side forever, the girl thinks.”

Sohail discusses her inspiration for ‘Hair’ afterwards:

I was talking to a friend about how you know when a relationship is over, how you can like someone and then they seem suddenly irritating and even physically unattractive – I thought the idea would make for a funny story, a bit ironic.”

Two of the stories in the collection I could not appreciate. The story ‘Filamo’ by Irenosen Okojie is dense and surreal, two qualities which I am not fond of in stories. I guess I prefer the stories I read to be plain-spoken and realistic. Although a quite short short story, the Jessie Greengrass story has one paragraph that is three pages long. This is another case where the density of the writing got in the way of my appreciation. This may be my problem, not the author’s.

This is the nice thing about anthologies of stories. They give the reader an opportunity to try out a variety of authors with little effort.


Grade:   B



‘The Reservoir Tapes’ – Stories Relating to the Disappearance of Becky Shaw


‘The Reservoir Tapes’ by Jon McGregor (2018) – 166 pages

‘The Reservoir Tapes’ contains a group of linked stories or vignettes involving the people who live in the small rural northern English village from which thirteen year-old Becky Shaw disappeared in McGregor’s last novel ‘Reservoir 13’. Whereas ‘Reservoir 13’ presents a wide picture of the people of this village over time, ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ presents small snapshots of people who knew Becky or knew about her disappearance. It is like Jon McGregor imagined ‘Reservoir 13’ so vividly that he had some leftover material about these people which he put into ‘The Reservoir Tapes’.

In the first story Charlotte, the mother of Becky, is being interrogated by a police officer soon after Becky disappeared. We only get the one policeman side of the conversation.

Okay. And then did you come downstairs before she finished her breakfast?

And was that when the idea of going for a walk was discussed?

It would be fair to say that Becky’s response wasn’t positive, would it?

Is it OK if I call her Becky?

She wasn’t enthusiastic about the walk. And the weather wasn’t great, at that point.

So you let the matter rest for the time being. To avoid a conflict.

This one-sided conversation is a good way to get us readers back into this rural village after the Becky Shaw disappearance.

There are fifteen of these quick short stories about various people in the village. ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ started out as a radio broadcast of fifteen episodes and is a fast easy read, but it would not work effectively for those who haven’t read ‘Reservoir 13’ which is a much deeper novel. Just as is the case of most villages, many of these people know or have heard about each other. The stories involve a wide sweep of people.

By the end of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’, we are no closer to figuring out what actually happened to Becky Shaw, but many possibilities are suggested. She could have drowned in the quarry pond or in Reservoir 13 where she had swam before. She may have been attacked by someone. She may have gotten lost during her walk on the mountain. All are possibilities.

All of these first-hand personal accounts relate to Becky Shaw’s disappearance in one way or another, but some veer far away from that to more recent occurrences or disagreements. Life moves on for the people of the village, and other things become of more immediate concern. There have been adulteries, divorces, a laborer gets trapped under quarry rock. Some of the accounts make you feel uneasy about the potential for violence in this or that character. By the end, we readers have the same eerie feeling we had at the end ‘Reservoir 13’.


Grade :    A



‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor – The Human Part of Nature


‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor   (2017) – 290 pages

‘Reservoir 13’ begins with the disappearance of thirteen year-old girl Rebecca Shaw from a small English village.  However the novel does not turn into a mystery attempting to explain the girl’s disappearance. Instead ‘Reservoir 13’ becomes something much more than that.

It is a partial record of the events that transpire for the various townspeople after the disappearance, often the amorous events of these men and women, young and old.  Life goes on.

This may not seem like much but let me explain.

McGregor views the people of this rural village with the same calm steady keenly observant attitude with which he observes the trees, the birds, the fish, and the other animals.  His view appears to be that we humans are as much a part of nature as everything else.

This is an important lesson.

He mentions the births, the deaths, the getting together and the parting of the ways of the various townspeople.  No person is more important or less important than the others.  Just like the plants and the animals, we go about our various affairs.

“There was rain for most of the day and snow on the higher ground.  The tips of the new-growth heather could just be reached through the snow.  Wood pigeons came out into the gardens where feed was put out and were often chased away.”

McGregor describes the doings of the townspeople in the same steadfast methodical tone he uses for the plants and animals.

“At the school there had been talk that either James Broad or Liam, or both, had once slept with Becky Shaw.  That talk seemed malicious and unlikely.  Sophie and Lynsey wanted to know where the talk had come from and James told them he didn’t want to fucking think about it.  Sophie tried to give him a hug but he shook her off.  Liam threw stones into the water.”

Don’t even try to keep track of the stories of all of the various townspeople who are mentioned in ‘Reservoir 13’.  There are just too many things going on with way too many people to follow them all.  That is not the point of ‘Reservoir 13’.

What is the point of ‘Reservoir 13’?  For me it is that we humans are just as much a part of nature as the plants and animals.  Our matings and our partings are just as subject to the rules of nature as those of the other plants and animals.  This undeniable fact is both reassuring and frightening.

Even if life may have come to an abrupt end for someone else, daily life goes on for the rest of us.


Grade:   A


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