I’m constantly impressed by the regularity with which adult education features in German crime fiction. What stands out is that in most cases, adult education doesn’t stand out – it is there in the background as part of every day German life. That’s rare in English language fiction, where adult education is either the main setting or serves as a marker of difference.
In Jon McGregor’s award-winning Reservoir 13, though, adult education features as a marker of passing time. The novel covers 13 years in the life of an English village, mirroring the age of a missing teenager. And every year, as regular as well dressing (Derbyshire perhaps?), harvest festival, or the village panto, the Workers’ Educational Association holds a class in the village.
McGregor doesn’t go into detail about the WEA classes. Their role in the novel is to mark the turning of the months, as one of the threads of continuity that are woven into the changing relationships and lives of the villagers. Who takes part, and why, are not particularly important.
McGregor also has one of his villagers – Susanna Wright – arrange a yoga class in the village hall. This provides something of a contrast with the routine rhythm of the WEA class:
It had taken a while but by now the classes were more popular than some had assumed they might be. She kept saying it was open to everyone, but whenever a man showed up he found himself the only one there, and soon decided not to come back. Most of the women were regulars, and after a few months some of them were disappointed by how few poses they could hold. Susanna tried to tell them yoga wasn’t about goals. There are no badges or certificates here, she said; it’s all about finding your own point of stretch.
This time, the class gives us an insight into some of the characters involved. It also serves to provide an example of change in village life, contrasting with the steady rhythm of the WEA. Susanna is new to the village, arriving in the third year of the narrative, and she is initially greeted with some suspicion. Her first attempt to organise a yoga class attracted three people, and only later does it become popular.
Reservoir 13 is an outstanding novel, and I heartily recommend it. It’s gently experimental in form, but thoroughly engaging, hypnotic even, and the disappearance at its heart remains unresolved. Quite aside from its treatment of adult learning, I really enjoyed it, and despite my general efforts to downsize my book collection, I’m hanging on to this one so I can read it again.