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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review: 'The Reservoir'

By John Milliken Thompson
Historical fiction
June 2011
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590514443

Although it's a well-known axiom to not judge a book by its cover, in this case it is all right. John Milliken Thompson's debut novel, The Reservoir, has as its cover a gorgeous, sprawling tree that hasn't leafed out, with an amber wash that harkens back to another time. It is desolate and nearly devoid of life. The cover is based on something that exists, yet has been turned into something else.

That's an accurate description of the novel. It's based on a true story, but Thompson, a nonfiction and short story writer, has taken the bare bones of what was known and turned it into a stark, sad story that is steeped in old-timey feel.

The discovery of the body of a young woman floating in Richmond's reservoir in March 1895 opens the novel. The reservoir superintendent who first sees the body, Mr. Meade, cannot bear to touch it. The other reservoir employee on the scene, Mr. Lucas, a more deliberate man, is besotted with the innocent-looking victim. But she is not innocent. She is in the late stages of pregnancy.

Little clues -- a red shawl, initials on a bag -- soon identify her as Lillie Meredith. Smaller clues -- a watch key that Lucas found the day after the body's discovery and kept hidden for more than a week, scraps from a torn-up note -- lead to Tommie Cluverius. He and his brother, Willie, lived with their Aunt Jane and their distant cousin Lillie for years in the countryside. Tommie is an up-and-coming lawyer, while Willie loves the land. Lillie appears to mainly love herself and flirting with boys.

Through the first mention of Tommie's name, until the end of the story, the reader knows he was there the night that Lillie died. But what happened isn't revealed -- or is it? -- until much later. Perhaps because the what actually happened is not known, Thompson finds a way to let the reader decide what happened. Although this may be a deal-breaker for some readers, it is not the main focus of the narrative and to dismiss the novel because of this authorial decision would be to miss out on other aspects of this story.

The Reservoir is so steeped in the language and feeling of its setting, it feels like it was written by a contemporary chronicler. Whether it's narrative, description or dialogue, Thompson's voice puts the reader directly in late 19th century Richmond. This accomplishment is all the more remarkable when family secrets about both sets of parents who sent their children to Aunt Jane are revealed. These are family troubles that happened then and happen now, and how they were dealt with then plays as significant a role as the limited range of options open to Lillie when she found herself with child.

Thompson also hints at the ability to write about deeply entangled emotions when loyalties are torn and people as close as loving brothers are not sure they really know each other after all. Mining deeper in this vein would not have served the tone of this novel, but the slight tracings seen here make the idea of even more in future writing a tantalizing prospect.

The tone of The Reservoir is appropriately melancholy. It's as noir as Chandler, as stark as one of Annie Proulx's Wyoming tales, as much a product of its setting as a Daniel Woodrell story and it's entrancing.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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