Benjamin Myers’s Under the Rock was my nonfiction book of 2018, so I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for its paperback release on the 25th (with a new subtitle, “Stories Carved from the Land”). I’m reprinting my Shiny New Books review below, with permission, and on behalf of Elliott & Thompson I am also hosting a giveaway of a copy of the paperback. Leave a comment saying that you’d like to win and I will choose one entry at random at the end of the day on Tuesday the 30th. (Sorry, UK only.)
Benjamin Myers has been having a bit of a moment. In 2017 Bluemoose Books published his fifth novel, The Gallows Pole, which went on to win the Roger Deakin Award and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and is now on its fourth printing. This taste of fame has brought renewed attention to his earlier work, including Beastings (2014), recipient of the Northern Writers’ Award. I’ve been interested in Myers’s work ever since I read an extract from the then-unpublished The Gallows Pole in Autumn, the Wildlife Trusts anthology edited by Melissa Harrison, but this is the first of his books that I’ve managed to read.
“Unremarkable places are made remarkable by the minds that map them,” Myers writes, and that is certainly true of Scout Rock, a landmark overlooking Mytholmroyd, near where the author lives in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. When he moved up there from London over a decade ago, he and his wife lived in a rental cottage built in 1640. He approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog, Heathcliff (“Walking is writing with your feet”), and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein.
Ted Hughes was born nearby, the Brontës not that much further away, and Hebden Bridge, in particular, has become a bastion of avant-garde artists and musicians. Myers also gets plenty of mileage out of his eccentric neighbours and postman. It’s a town that seems to attract oddballs and renegades, from the vigilantes who poisoned the fishing hole to an overdose victim who turns up beneath a stand of Himalayan balsam. A strange preponderance of criminals has come from the region, too, including sexual offenders like Jimmy Savile and serial killers such as the Yorkshire Ripper and Harold Shipman (‘Doctor Death’).
On his walks Myers discovers the old town tip, still full of junk that won’t biodegrade for hundreds more years, and finds traces of the asbestos that was dumped by Acre Mill, creating a national scandal. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of a few remaining unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing literary interest in the ‘edgelands’ between settlement and the wild – places where the human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. (Other recent examples would be Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Landfill by Tim Dee, Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, and Outskirts by John Grindrod.)
Under the Rock gives a keen sense of the seasons’ change and the seemingly inevitable melancholy that accompanies bad weather. A winter of non-stop rain left Myers nigh on delirious with flu; Storm Eva caused the Calder River to flood. He was a part of the effort to rescue trapped pensioners. Heartening as it is to see how the disaster brought people together – Sikh and Muslim charities and Syrian refugees were among the first to help – looting also resulted. One of the most remarkable things about this book is how Myers takes in such extremes of behaviour, along with mundanities, and makes them all part of a tapestry of life.
The book’s recurring themes tangle through all of the sections, even though it has been given a somewhat arbitrary four-part structure (Wood – Earth – Water – Rock). Interludes between these major parts transcribe Myers’s field notes, which are more like impromptu poems that he wrote in a notebook kept in his coat pocket. The artistry of these snippets of poetry is incredible given that they were written in situ, and their alliteration bleeds into his prose as well. My favourite of the poems was “On Lighting the First Fire”:
death is everywhere
the golden cloak
the seeds of
dreaming still sing.
The Field Notes sections are illustrated with Myers’s own photographs, which, again, are of enviable quality. I came away from this feeling like Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it read as profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. There is also a wonderful sense of rhythm to his pages, with a pithy sentence appearing every couple of paragraphs to jolt you to attention.
“Writing is a form of alchemy,” Myers declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under the author’s spell here. While his eyes are open to the many distressing political and environmental changes of the last few years, the ancient perspective of the Rock reminds him that, though humans are ultimately insignificant and individual lives are short, we can still rejoice in our experiences of the world’s beauty while we’re here.
From the publisher:
“Benjamin Myers was born in Durham in 1976. He is a prize-winning author, journalist and poet. His recent novels are each set in a different county of northern England, and are heavily inspired by rural landscapes, mythology, marginalised characters, morality, class, nature, dialect and post-industrialisation. They include The Gallows Pole, winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and recipient of the Roger Deakin Award; Turning Blue, 2016; Beastings, 2014 (Portico Prize for Literature & Northern Writers’ Award winner), Pig Iron, 2012 (Gordon Burn Prize winner & Guardian Not the Booker Prize runner-up); and Richard, a Sunday Times Book of the Year 2010. Bloomsbury will publish his new novel, The Offing, in August 2019.
As a journalist, he has written widely about music, arts and nature. He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, the inspiration for Under the Rock.”
Here are excerpts from (and links to, where available) some of my recent reviews for other places. A few of these books will undoubtedly be showing up on my end-of-year best lists in a couple weeks’ time.
I was pleased to have three of the books I reviewed show up on BookBrowse’s list of the top 20 books of the year, as voted for by the site’s readers. What’s more, Educated was voted their top nonfiction book of the year and Where the Crawdads Sing (below) their #1 debut novel. (The third on the list was Unsheltered.)
Beauty in the Broken Places by Allison Pataki: Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are strong at the broken places, and Allison Pataki found that to be true when her husband, David Levy, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident in Chicago, had a near-fatal stroke at age 30. On June 9, 2015, Dave and five-months-pregnant Allison were on a flight from Chicago to Hawaii for their babymoon, planning to stop in Seattle to visit Dave’s brothers. But they never made it there. On the plane Dave told her he couldn’t see out of his right eye.The plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota and Dave was rushed to a hospital for testing. Doctors found he had suffered a bithalamic midbrain ischemic stroke, even though he’d had no risk factors and this stroke type was virtually unknown in patients of his age. Pataki goes back and forth between the details of this health crisis and her past with Dave. Hers is a relatable story of surviving the worst life can throw at you and finding the beauty in it.
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Khakpour can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel unwell and like she wanted to escape. “I had no idea what normal was. I never felt good,” she writes in her bracing memoir. Related to this sense of not being at home in her body was the feeling of not having a place where she fit in. Throughout Sick, she gives excellent descriptions of physical and mental symptoms. Her story is a powerful one of being mired in sickness and not getting the necessary help from medical professionals. Lyme disease has cost her $140,000 so far, and a lack of money and health insurance likely delayed her diagnosis by years. There is, unfortunately, some inherent repetition in a book of this nature. At times it feels like an endless cycle of doctors, appointments, and treatment strategies. However, the overall arc of struggling with one’s body and coming to terms with limitations will resonate widely.
Southernmost by Silas House: In Silas House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey in Southernmost: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace. Reconciliation is a major theme, but so is facing up to the consequences of poor decisions. I found the plotting decisions rewarding but also realistic. The pattern of a narrow religious worldview ebbing away to no faith at all and eventually surging back as a broader and more universal spirituality truly resonates. I loved House’s characters and setups, as well as his gentle evocation of the South. His striking metaphors draw on the natural world, like “She had the coloring of a whip-poor-will” and “The sky is the pink of grapefruit meat.” It’s a beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past, revealing how they are linked by distrust and displacement. The book’s themes and structure emphasize similarities between two time periods that might initially appear very different. Chapters alternate between the story lines, and the last words of one chapter form the title of the next. It’s a clever and elegant connecting strategy, as is the habit of using variations on the title word as frequently as possible – something Jonathan Franzen also does in his novels. (I counted 22 instances of “shelter” and its variants in the text; how many can you spot?) Kingsolver can be heavy-handed with her messages about science, American politics and healthcare, etc. All the same, Unsheltered is a rich, rewarding novel and an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: It’s easy to see why so many have taken this debut novel into their hearts: it’s a gripping mystery but also a tender coming-of-age story about one woman’s desperately lonely upbringing and her rocky route to finding love and a vocation. Not only that, but its North Carolina marsh setting is described in lyrical language that evinces Delia Owens’s background in nature writing, tempered with folksy Southern dialect. The title refers to places where wild creatures do what comes naturally, and throughout the book we are invited to ponder how instinct and altruism interact and what impact human actions can have in the grand scheme of things. In Kya, Owens has created a truly outstanding character. The extremity of her situation makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of her oddities. Crawdads is a real treat.
Shiny New Books
Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers: When Myers moved to the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire from London over a decade ago, he approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog (“Walking is writing with your feet”) and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from literature and geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing interest in the ‘edgelands’ where human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. Interludes transcribe his field notes, which are stunning impromptu poems. I came away from this feeling that Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. “Writing is a form of alchemy,” he declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under his spell here.
Nine Pints by Rose George: Nine Pints dives deep into the science and cultural history of blood. George’s journalistic tenacity keeps her pushing through the statistics to find the human stories that animate the book. In the first chapter we track the journey of a pint of blood that she donates in her hometown of Leeds. I was particularly interested, if morbidly so, in the chapter on leeches and bloodletting. Other sections journey further afield, chiefly to South Africa and India, to explore AIDS and menstruation taboos. The style can be choppy and repetitive, given to short sentences and identical paragraph openers, and there are a couple of places where the nine-chapter structure shows its weaknesses. While Nine Pints is quite uneven, it does convey a lot of important information about the past, present and future of our relationship to blood.
Times Literary Supplement
Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul: Eighty percent of a facial surgeon’s work is the removal of face, mouth and neck tumors in surgeries lasting eight hours or more. McCaul also restores patients’ appearance as much as possible after disfiguring accidents. Here he pulls back the curtain on the everyday details of his work life: everything from his footwear (white Crocs that soon become stained with blood and other fluids) to his musical choices (pop for the early phases; classical for the more challenging microsurgery stage). Like neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, he describes the awe of the first incision – “an almost overwhelming sense of entering into a sanctuary.” There’s a vicarious thrill to being let into this insider zone, and the book’s prose is perfectly clear and conversational, with unexpectedly apt metaphors such as “Sometimes the blood vessels can be of such poor quality that it is like trying to sew together two damp cornflakes.” This is a book that inspires wonder at all that modern medicine can achieve.
On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén: Lindén left city life behind to take on his parents’ rural collective in southeast Sweden. This documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. Published diaries can devolve into tedium, but the brevity and selectiveness of this one prevent its accounts of everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling, as the shepherd practices being present with these “quiet and unpretentious and stoical” creatures. The attention paid to slaughtering and sustainability issues – especially as the business starts scaling up and streamlining activities – lends the book a wider significance. It is thus more realistic and less twee than its stocking-stuffer dimensions and jolly title font seem to suggest.
The dark horse in this year’s Man Booker Prize race is Elmet, a brilliant, twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. I’d love to see this win the Booker, or make the shortlist at the very least. You’d hardly believe it’s a debut novel, or that it’s by a 29-year-old PhD candidate in medieval history. The epigraph from Ted Hughes defines “Elmet” as an ancient Celtic kingdom encompassing what is now West Yorkshire. The word still appears in a few Yorkshire place names today. Metaphorically, Hughes notes, the region was a “‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.” That’s an apt setting for Mozley’s central characters: a family living on the edge of poverty and respectability – off-grid and not quite legal.
Daniel and Cathy Oliver – 14 and 15, respectively – live with their father, John Smythe, in a simple house he built with his own hands in a copse. They mostly eat whatever they can hunt. Daddy is a renowned pugilist not above beating people up when they owe his friends money. Feisty Cathy is bullied by boys at school; when teachers don’t believe her, she has no choice but to hit back. There’s a strong us-against-the-world ethos to the novel, but underneath that defensiveness there’s a sense of unease: Daniel, the narrator, isn’t a fighter like his father and sister. He’s a sensitive soul who’s happiest cooking and playing with his dogs.
Like the reader, Daniel watches in grim fascination as Mr. Price, a powerful local landlord, starts issuing threats. Price warns Daddy that his family is trespassing. If they don’t leave he’ll make life difficult for them. A group of tenants, many of them just out of prison and barely getting by, bands together to take revenge on Price, planning to withhold rent and farm labor until conditions improve. No longer will they accept £20 payments for 10-hour work days. At first it seems their fight for rights might be successful, but Price and his goons retrench. Things come to a head when Price promises to sign their plot of land over to Daniel – if Daddy agrees to call off the strike and fight one last climactic match in the woods.
The final 70 pages of Elmet blew me away: a crescendo of fateful violence that reaches Shakespearean proportions. This knocks all those Hogarth remakes (which generally, with the exception of Hag-Seed, adhere too slavishly to the plots and so fail to channel the spirit) into a cocked hat. Though oddly similar to two other novels on the Booker longlist that unearth disturbing doings in a superficially pastoral England – Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and Autumn by Ali Smith – Elmet achieves the better balance between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism. Mozley’s countryside is no idyll but a fallen edgeland:
And if the hare was made of myths then so too was the land at which she scratched. Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked when the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives.
The characters usually speak in Yorkshire dialect, but where many authors would render the definite article as “t’,” Mozley simply elides it. For instance, here’s John shaking his head over the injustice of land ownership:
It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.
The author is not entirely consistent with the transcription of dialect, though, and sometimes her use of spoken language is off: too ornate to be believable in certain characters’ mouths, like Cathy or a man who comes to the door to deliver bad news late on. These are such minor lapses of authorial control that I barely think them worth mentioning, but take it as proof that Mozley will only get better in the years to come. This is a gorgeous, timeless tale of the determination to overcome helplessness by facing down those who might harm the body but cannot destroy the spirit.
Elmet was published in the UK by JM Originals on August 10th. With thanks to Yassine Belkacemi and Katherine Burdon at John Murray Press for the free review copy.
This past weekend marked my second trip to Whitby in North Yorkshire, more than 10 years after my first. It was, appropriately, on the occasion of a 10-year anniversary – namely, of the existence of Emmanuel Café Church, an informal group based at the University of Leeds chaplaincy center that I was involved in during my master’s year in 2005–6. I was there for the very first year and it was a welcome source of friendship during a tough year of loneliness and homesickness, so it’s gratifying that it’s still going nearly 11 years later (but also scary that it’s all quite that long ago). The reunion was held at Sneaton Castle, a lovely venue with a resident order of Anglican nuns that’s about a half-hour walk from central Whitby.
The more I think about it, Leeds was a fine place to do a Victorian Literature degree – it’s not too far from Haworth, the home of the Brontës, or Whitby, a setting used in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Two of my classmates and I made our own pilgrimages to both sites in 2006. The Whitby Abbey ruins rising above the churchyard of St. Mary’s certainly create a suitably creepy atmosphere. No wonder Whitby is enduringly popular with Goths and at Halloween.
Another resident of Victorian Whitby, unknown to me until I saw a plaque designating her cottage on the walk from Sneaton into town, was Mary Linskill (1840–91), who wrote short stories and novels including Between the Heather and the Northern Sea (1884), The Haven under the Hill (1886) and In Exchange for a Soul (1887). I checked Project Gutenberg and couldn’t find a trace of her work, but the University of Reading holds a copy of her Tales of the North Riding in their off-site store. Perhaps I’ll have a gander!
There are other connections to be made with Whitby, too. For one thing, it has a long maritime history: it was home to William Scoresby (“Whaler, Arctic Voyager and Inventor of the Crow’s Nest,” as the plaque outside his house reads), and Captain James Cook grew up 30 miles away and served an apprenticeship in the town. There’s a statue of Cook plus a big whalebone arch on the hill the other side of the harbor from the church and abbey. It felt particularly fitting that I’ve been reading A.N. Wilson’s forthcoming novel Resolution, about the naturalists who sailed on Captain Cook’s second major expedition in the 1770s.
(My other apt reading for the sunny August weekend was Vanessa Lafaye’s Summertime.)
On our Sunday afternoon browse of Whitby’s town center we couldn’t resist a stop into a bargain bookshop, where my husband bought a cheap copy of David Lebovitz’s all-desserts cookbook; I picked up a classy magnetic bookmark and a novel I’d never heard of for a grand total of £1.09. I know nothing about Dirk Wittenborn’s Pharmakon, but this 10 pence paperback comes with high praise from Lionel Shriver, Bret Easton Ellis and the Guardian, so I’ll give it a try and let you know how it works out in terms of literary value for money!