“Soot and ash. Snot and spume. Quag and sump and clotted moss. Loam.”
THE opening playful poetry should not distract you… we are off to a flying start, it is 1767, we are on a secret errand, we pass the tortured body of the poacher hung for taking a stag, Mrs Hartley is pleasuring her husband and then we are accosted in the road by a menacing boy with a slingshot plus we already know that this is the stuff of legend, a real story even, from around the valleys of Halifax…
The language is rich and poetic. This is describing the local butcher
“How is that corn-mouthed, collop bollocked, jug eared bastard?”
It is akin to His Bloody Project but in technicolour with surround sound. It won the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction but did not make the Man Booker short list last year, which seems a bad aberration.
I might accept it is not necessarily a book for everyone. It sides with the visceral, the raw. The violence is Shakespearean. Women do not get much of a look in, but are canny enough to stash their savings in the chicken coop. This is a man’s world, as it might well have been. This is Deadwood, only it is Halifax, Yorkshire, a century before. You might imagine it being spun in a snug over a few pints of beer. A film version I hear is in the pipeline, a compelling thought which won’t have to drill as deep as the novel into the guts and grime.
The history is slipped in carefully, talk of the mills and industrialization, the arrival of the turnpike, these are free men of the moors whose world is being appropriated. Insurrection is in the air.
The writing is rich, leathery, brambly because more than everything, towering over everyone are the moors themselves, animated, lusted after, reducing men as in Ben’s dad the charcoal burner to mere smoke.
Try this passage
“Autumn arrived like a burning ghost ship on the landscape’s tide…the ravens took flight to the highest climes as leaves fell like flung bodies..
Or this one in the Red Lion…
“The sharp sting of several types of smoke scented he air: the burned leaves of a bonfire, the greasy oil smoke of the hanging lanterns and the narrow plumes from clay pipes that clicked against black and broken teeth”.
Myers catches a very northern idiom, of men coming together, his characters breathe, they have names, they have desires. Academics could tease out a parallel with the Bible and Judas, or even a contemporary Brexit style we-want-to-take-control. It is multi layered, an immersive travelogue down a time shaft to less comfortable world.