Beastings – Benjamin Myers

There’s a simplicity to this novel that’s really refreshing – the writing is pared down and harsh, mirroring the tough fells that form the story’s backdrop, and the plot focuses in on just three characters.

The girl (we don’t know her name) has taken a child from the Hinckley’s, who she was a help for. She’s been there since being assigned by the orphanage where she was raised, and – we learn slowly – abused by the sisters and raped repeatedly by the priest. The girl is mute, though most likely through trauma rather than anything solely physical.

She has taken the baby and is fleeing across the hills of Cumbria, pursued by the Priest who has enlisted help from a Poacher, and its this chase that forms the core of the story.

The girl – we never know her name – makes her way across crags and moors and woods, half starving to death, meeting all kinds of strangers, some kind, some horrific, all the time trying to keep the baby as safe as possible, despite having no money, only a tiny amount of food and almost no opportunity to get any, save for what little she can forage or beg.

She meets occasional farmers and wanderers, some of whom help her, others quite the opposite, but on the whole she’s alone with her baby.

The Priest and the Poacher are in pursuit, tracking her. The Priest is hard, thin, mean, cites God constantly, and takes drugs rather than eats. At the end of the book the building sense of menace about him is realised in brilliant and surprising ways (I’ll say no more than that).

The Poacher is a simple country man, lives in and from the wild, and the Priest looks down on him, often refusing to engage in conversation with the Poacher, as if it’s beneath him. The Poacher begins as a rough character but he is slowly redeemed by Myers, as a plain talker who gradually reveals the true character of the Priest.

The relationship between the Priest and the Poacher is perhaps the most interesting and engaging part of the book. There’s something suggestive of Waiting for Godot in their ongoing dialogue. The dynamic between them gradually changes as the Poacher starts to see what the Priest is really like, that the Priest is pursuing the girl for self-interested and perhaps even malevolent reasons, and by the final third of the book the Priest avoids conversation with the Poacher, not because he considers it beneath him anymore, but because the Poacher is too close to the bone in his blunt and often funny questions and taunts to the Priest.

Like others of Myers’s books – like Under the Rock – it’s the evocation of the countryside that is so strong in Beastings too, alongside the characters – not as a rural idyll but as a tough, unruly place where nature dominates humans rather than vice versa.

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The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers

A vivid and gritty fictionalised account of the hardness of rural life and a band of criminals that were fighting authority and causing misery in equal parts. Absorbing reading.

This is the true story, with some grounded but fantastic fictional embellishments, of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a group of farm workers and rural labours in eighteenth century northern England who made money clipping coins and forging them into counterfeits.

Led by David Hartley, they made money, fought the law and the coming industrialisation, made some people better off and others less so. They were a gang whose activities threatened the authority of the king and the law.

For this reason local lawman William Deighton and wealthy solicitor Robert Parker, with the aid of James Broadbent, a dim and unlikable mole in the Coiners gang, go after them. It doesn’t end well for Deighton, but Hartley is arrested, sent to prison and hung in York, and the Coiners are disbanded.

It’s a gripping story, but perhaps the most remarkable feature of this book is the writing style. Vividly written, the descriptions of the wildness, the untamed, nature of rural life make this book stand apart. I wonder if Myers’ writing is one of a new approach to writing about the countryside, one which focuses on the hardness and wildness of the land, rather than it’s beauty. I’m thinking, too, of others writers, most notably Fiona Mozley, author of Elmet. For them the countryside isn’t twee or privileged but rough and lawless and hard.

Unlike historical fiction, the book’s written in a very modern tone, in the way that farm folk might speak then and now. This is interweaved regularly with extracts from David Hartley’s prison dairies, which are written in a phonetic English dialect, with words that are spelled as they sound, something which is initially off-putting but soon becomes accessible and amusing. His semi-poetic ramblings offer a different perspective to that of the narrator too, which raises questions of reliability – of narrators and of historical records.

David Hartley himself is presented as an ambiguous character: occasionally Robin Hood like, occasionally someone to admire for their enterprise, but often mean and greedy and crude and dangerous, rather like a modern day gang boss might be portrayed. In fact, he comes across not unlike the kind of man that Nietzsche praises in his work – someone beyond conventional morals, who is unconstrained by norms and laws, who strives to live a remarkable life, who isn’t resentful even after being caught. As Hartley puts it in one of his diary entries:

“These are not the werds of a man turned sower with regret and if I had another chance id do it all the same again but bigger and better.”

John McGregor – Reservoir 13

What initially appears to be a crime novel quickly turns into something wholly more intriguing and experimental.

A young girl, Rebecca Shaw, has gone missing near reservoir 13 above a Peak District village. There’s some focus on this at the start, and references throughout, but more than anything the disappearance forms the backdrop to the novel’s focus on the life of the village.

Set over 13 years, McGregor tells the story of the people and the wildlife of the village. In 13 chapters, where each month might get a few pages – though it’s not regimented, not set – and in long paragraphs, he covers some of the people in the village like the Hunters and the Fletchers and the Joneses, as well as the nature surrounding them. Through short vignettes we get to know intimate details of the villagers’ lives, both the mundane and the remarkable, and a picture of their lives builds up as we visit them for brief periods time and time again over the years.

The development of the youngsters James, Rowan, Sophie, Lyndsey, is most interesting – from just teenagers (who knew the missing girl Rebecca, fleetingly) to twenty somethings, we see their tight relationship to one another unravel and then come together again differently. They follow divergent paths, university, marriage, that kind of thing, but there remains a bond – perhaps because of the girl’s death, perhaps because of their historic friendship.

The book is beautifully written. Pared down, short sentences, simple words, entirely descriptive all the way through, in a way that accurately captures so much of village life. One striking thing about the style, too, is the way everything is smooth and flowing, but the numbering of the reservoirs is jaunty when mentioned; they really stand out, making you remember the missing girl that acts as a shadow over the book.

What the novel really achieves is capturing the endless flow of life, the way lives repeat, iterate and change; the way certain things bind people into a community – bonfire night, annual pantomimes, new year celebrations, the school, mischief night, even the shared history of a missing girl. Some events stand out like Jones the school caretaker being arrested for child pornography, Martin and Wendy’s relationship breaking down, Suzanne Wright’s violent ex-husband turning up. But mostly human life is like animal life – seasonal, cyclical, habitual.

Elmet – Fiona Mozley

Among the best books I’ve ever read, Elmet is a brilliant novel about land and the countryside, family and loyalty, poverty and class.

It’s narrated by Daniel, the brother of independent Cathy and their Dad, John. They live a lawless life in a wooden hut in Yorkshire, living off the land, foraging, and from what John – a giant and renowned fighter – can earn from staged fights organised by travellers and others for bets. They don’t attend school but get their education from a family friend, Vivian, who teaches them at her home in the nearby village.

All is good if a bit risky occasionally (and worse when John goes away), until John teams up with local workers and tenants to take on their landlord and employer, Mr Price. He is the muscle, his job to scare off the thugs who threaten people in the village who hold out against Price. It gradually seems to work – until one of Price’s sons is murdered and John is the main suspect. The kids are captured, and he seems to disappear, regardless of whether he’s the killer or not. We get fleeting flashes forward through the book from Daniel who is searching for his sister some years later, and the Dad’s whereabouts remain unknown, giving the whole thing some ambiguity.

It’s a great story, but even more than than that it is the setting that makes it. The brilliant and accurate descriptions of the countryside, both beautiful and gritty. And the way it’s portrayed in a way so often ignored by nature writers: unruly, large, wild; full of people with low pay jobs struggling to earn a living; a place where life is difficult and unsanitised for many.

There’s also a great little bit where Daniel is talking about. Vivian’s house and realises that whereas Cathy likes the outdoors, the freedom of the wild, he likes the comforts of inside: cushions, materials, the warmth. It’s a great little insight; one of so many.

There’s so much to say about this book… but I’ll leave it there.