- The intrigue of the unreliable narrator. Sam Marsdyke is a classic first person, ‘unreliable narrator’. He is the son of a farmer living in an unfashionable part of the Yorkshire Dales and tells us about his life tending sheep and amusing himself amidst the wild, remote hills. It’s only as the novel unfolds that we realise that he is not exactly being truthful with us. The first clue is when he presents a family who has just moved in nearby with some mushrooms. We, and the family, think they are a genuine present, but soon discover they are riddled with maggots. Was this deliberate? We’re not quite sure. Sam is nineteen and is both mature and childish. He becomes fascinated with the fifteen-year-old daughter of this family. When we learn that he got chucked out of school for an altercation with a girl, we become increasingly uneasy about his interest in his teenaged neighbour. Where do his intentions lie?
- The lure of a dialect brilliantly represented. Raisin’s great achievement is the way he enables Sam to speak in a dialect which is both descriptive and powerful. This is no mean feat; too often dialect in novels comes across as artificial and unconvincing. But Raisin uses just the right amount of dialect and standard English. Here’s Sam describing a local who is feeling out of sorts in a pub which has been turned into a vertical drinking establishment with loud music and lager: “He was a fair show of how a person can mould and rot to naught. I glegged in at him, shuffling back to his seat, a generation of sorrow and drink worn into his face.” Phrases like “fair show” “rot to naught” and “glegged in” suffuse the text bringing the reader a visceral sense of the character of Sam and the local area. The dialect is earthy and rings true, but it’s never overdone.
- The pull of the pastoral. Sam is a creature of nature, talking in a very plausible and real way to the animals around him. Here he is talking to the cock of the farm, “Cock-a-doodle-doo, eh? You barmpot, it’s the middle of the bleeding night, some alarm clock you are. But there was no talking to him, perched up on the beam there like a pineapple. Cock-a-doodle-doo, he called again, how many girlfriends do you have Marsdyke? I’ve got twenty.” (Chapter 4). There is a sinister humour here as Sam feels the cock is teasing him for his lack of success with women. The novel is, like Thomas Hardy’s best work, full of the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells of the country. Like Hardy, there is a sense of the menace of nature, we see lambs being born and dying, the maggots that lurk behind lovely mushrooms, the sexual drives that infuse both animals and humans. Again like Hardy, Raisin shows how modern culture is ruining and changing the countryside with its second homes, its technology, its relentless inroads into the traditional rural communities which are represented as dying off.
- Is Marsdyke the corrupted descendant of Gabriel Oak? Marsdyke shares many similarities with one of Thomas Hardy’s most famous characters, Gabriel Oak, who like, Marsdyke was a sheep farmer and spent quite a bit of time spying upon his beloved from afar. However, where Oak proves himself to be true and sane, I don’t think it’s going to give too much away to say that Marsdyke is deceitful and disturbed in mind. And yet, like Oak, we feel a lot of sympathy for Sam because we see how much a victim of circumstance he is: his father is brutal, his mother emotionally ill-equipped to help Sam, and the culture that Sam has been born into, that of the farming community, is dying. What chance does Sam have?
- The pleasures of reading a wonderfully accessible literary novel. I adored reading this novel. It is so well-written and nicely structured; it is funny, suspenseful, moving and horrifying. I learnt so much about human psychology, the nature of language and dialect, remote rural Yorkshire and human culture generally. I’m really looking forward to reading Raisin’s new novel, A Natural, which is published in March 2017.
See Pam Johnson’s interview with Ross on the writing of God’s Own Country, here