It's been a long week or more since I finished reading God's Own Country by Ross Raisin and a lot of pianos have moved across the sitting room in that time (I'll explain that later in the week), so it was an interesting moment when I sat down at my laptop, opened the book and noticed that unusually I had written scant marginalia.
The reason for this was that I was too completely immersed to pause, even to note down a salient fact about characterisation or plot or location. Ross Raisin has created another one of those memorably literary voices and adolescent personalities to join the ranks of Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield and Curious Incident's Christopher Boone and with him comes a very unusual unreliable narrator and with it a take on a mind that seems to drift from normal adolescent to disturbed psychopath and yet never loses reader sympathy en route. In fact if anything I emerged with a far greater understanding of a mind in turmoil which somehow sees itself as normal.
Sorry I'm making that sound very confusing but trust me, if you read this book you'll know exactly what I'm getting at.
Sam Marsdyke son of a farmer lives in rural isolation high up on the Yorkshire Moors having been expelled from school for the sexual assualt of another pupil. Poor Sam is misunderstood from the off and doesn't even seem to merit the care and attention his father gives the sheep, let alone the understanding that a human being could do with. Treated no better than an animal by his father as he works day and night in this bleak and unforgiving landscape. Lindy Burleigh writing in the Literary Review rates this as one of the few novels since Wuthering Heights to feature the moors as such an integral part of the novel and to read it is indeed to be there. Now I'm trying to think of a book, any book which casts a happy joyous light on this landscape and I can't (though I expect you can) Emily Bronte certainly did the damage there.
God's Own Country offers a great line in town versus country and seen through the eyes of Sam, the wealthy incomers buying up the bankrupt farms to move in and enjoy a sanitised version of rural life are a game target for his attention. Initially it's innocent and jokey with a good deal of fantasy added in, slowly however the readerly discomfort increases as it shifts into a bit of peeping tom-ness. Then it all goes horribly wrong when the daughter of the Marsdyke's new neighbours tells Sam she wants to run away.
It's at this point that the book took a strange grip on me as a reader. Of course what follows is awful, and undoubtedly menacing but it somehow feels benignly malevolent when presented through Sam's eyes because he elicits a profound sense of sympathy with his inability to define right from wrong on the normal social scale. I could have wept for him as I made frantic excuses on his behalf...but look at his childhood...no wonder with all that cruelty...and there you have it, a complete understanding of just why some people behave as they do and so unavoidably.
The writing utilises a good deal of Yorkshire dialect and colloquialism, this vernacular could all rebound badly in a book less well written, but here it works perfectly to create a truly original voice. Measured and realistic it provides a powerful contrast between the old established and the new and upcoming, local language becomes the divide that cannot be crossed, the immutable and possibly only sense of permanence that may remain as the butcher's shop becomes The Green Pepper Deli where
'there were rabbits strung up and bloody hunks of beef dripping onto the counter'
are replaced by
'olives pricked with little sticks'.
'These were dark days for the old boys in town, certain. The shadows of the cities were sneaking in both sides of the valley, and there was nothing any of them could do about it but for mawnging.'
There's an interview with Ross Raisin here promoting the book launch in the US where for some strange reason that I can't fathom it's titled Out Backward, and I think he handles the first question very well given that it's a bit of a googlie,
'Do people really talk like this in Yorkshire?'
Well I'd awant Ross Raisin's a gradely chap and I'd awant he was capt and could have looked a claht'ead or a gauvie if he'd been mithered and wished he was a mowdiwarps agait aht and then he'd have got all blathered up and been a bit too brussen in fact a bonney...oh alright I got it all from here.
Meanwhile expect to have your expectations turned on their head if you decide to read God's Own Country / Out Backward and emerge from it having met one of the saddest yet most memorable voices you will encounter on the pages of a novel.