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Review: Reservoir by Jessie Greengrass

By Natalia Theodoridou

In Reservoir, Jessie Greengrass offers an intimate account of an apocalypse, one that comes quietly, in the form of a drought. It is this drought that forced the protagonist’s family to leave behind her childhood farm and move to the city. But with the reservoir that was built to supply the city with water failing and the city itself finally succumbing to thirst, the narrator, now thirty three, returns to her childhood landscape, ‘for want of anywhere else to go.’

Here, the history of her drought-induced displacement becomes entwined with an earlier one: Tucker, her family’s closest neighbour, used to tell her the story of how the valley was flooded to create the reservoir when he was young, and how his family was relocated to a new house by the dam. Young Tucker bore witness to the flood that consumed the valley, together with its six houses and a church, his family left to oversee their own extinction event.

What I find most compelling about this piece is the way in which water does the work of memory. The unnamed narrator retraces her steps, discovering the betrayals of memory–some small, some large. And, even though–or perhaps because–she is ruled by thirst, water has invaded her language: goodbyes run off Tucker’s back like rain, eyes stream, voices rise and fall like waves, loss rushes, events are filtered through aquatic vocabulary; water rewrites both landscape and perception in the same way that memory rewrites them. Memory is a trickster and a sculptor: it alters the land by increments, it revises the paths taken, distances shrink or grow. Neuroscience tells us that the act of recalling a memory also transforms it, making it less and less accurate every time, the memory of the experience gradually replaced by the experience of remembering it. The more we remember something, the more we forget it–like water filling a valley inch by inch. You can go down to the edge of the water every morning, but, each time, a little more of the valley will be gone.

In Borgesian fashion, the memory of place looms so large that it covers and conceals the reality of the landscape. Person and landscape overlap–as is subtly revealed in Donya Todd’s wonderfully contemplative illustrations. They complement and underline the text; each illuminates, revises, and complicates the other.

Every childhood story is a ghost story, but even more so this one: humans are displaced and decentred, positioned not as rulers and shapers of the natural environment–although not for lack of trying–but as thieves and squatters. The story opens with thirst and closes with drinking: a drinking of the valley, a drinking of memory. In the end, the body infuses the landscape and is absorbed by it. The final illustration, presented in fragments over the course of the last few pages, is made whole again: a body inscribed with the landscape, a landscape that holds a body, and a body of water, laying it all bare.

Reservoir is published by The Guillemot Factory, a collaboration between Guillemot Press & The Word Factory. Each title has been fully illustrated by Donya Todd. The title can be purchased on the Guillemot Press website here.