Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Reservoir: John Milliken Thompson

I'm not usually a fan of mystery novels. Not for any particular reason other than they don't usually grab my attention. However, something about The Reservoir intrigued me. Maybe it was because the story is set in 1885. Maybe it was because the mystery revolves around a pregnant dead girl found floating in the town reservoir. Maybe it was because Thompson based his novel on a true story.

There are three characters at the heart of Thompson's novel: Tommie, his brother Willie, and their cousin Lillie. On March 14,1885 a body is found floating in the reservoir in Richmond, Virginia. The body turns out to be a pregnant Lillie. The rest of the book is the story of Tommie's trial for the murder of his cousin, interspersed with Tommie's flashbacks that fill out the narration. Tommie files a not guilty plea, but his private narration alludes to his struggle regarding "the truth". Here is the truth; Thompson has written a novel based on an actual court case that is riddled with holes and unanswered questions. I warn you now, this book doesn't tell you outright if Tommie was guilty or innocent. Which makes The Reservoir a very well constructed character study, because while there is a plot line in this novel, I feel like the plot isn't as important as the people.

Though Tommie is the narrator, this story really belongs to Lillie. Sweet, young, naive Lillie who caught the attention of her Cluverius cousins at a young age, practiced seducing them both, but fell in love with Tommie. When she becomes pregnant, Lillie begs Tommie to marry her, knowing that having a baby out of wedlock will ruin her for marriage with anyone else. But is it actually Tommie's baby? When Tommie--who is on the verge of a bright future in law--rebuffs Lillie, she is devastated. Is it enough for her to take her own life?

The Reservoir is a classic example of excellent storytelling. Thompson has taken a few rusty court case notes and expanded them into a fully dimensional novel. I was slow getting through this one, but the story kept me interested.

Rating: $$

ARC received courtesy of Other Press.

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