Monday, 6 August 2018

Can You Write Too Well? A Review of Haweswater by Sarah Hall

Mardale Green begins to emerge from its watery grave
So, the other day I began reading Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, a book which begins with water lapping around the wheels of a cart leaving the Cumbrian dale of Mardale as the eponymous reservoir fills with water. First thing the next morning I walked along the lane leading into the hamlet of Mardale Green as it emerged after a period of drought. Then I went home and finished the book. 

What a book it is (mainly in a good way). For me it reads like a tribute to a lost Eden, a richly-written description of a beautiful land. Hall implies that it’s a lost landscape, but it isn’t. It’s very much there and endlessly attractive. (Do you have a spare hour? I can show you my photos.) 

What’s lost isn’t the landscape of the dale, but the way of life. 

This is the problem I have with the book. It’s the story of Janet Lightburn, resistant to the flooding of the valley, and her intense (for intense, read violent) affair with the man from the Manchester Water Company, Jack Ligget. But I didn’t really care about Janet, or Jack, or anyone else. Hall manages to drown her characters in the richness of her prose characters, and I never felt I knew or understood them enough to care. 

I can see what the author’s trying to do, with her switches of tense and her broken sentences, but it doesn’t work. Part of the problem is that the book is reminiscent of the 1930s rural-misery-memoir genre of Mary Webb and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, in which life in the countryside is relentlessly miserable and the stones of (insert rural area here) are stained with blood and lead only to tragedy. Of course, it doesn’t help that the genre was so wonderfully debunked by Stella Gibbons, and I do find myself wondering whether I’d have viewed Haweswater differently if I hadn’t read Cold Comfort Farm, but who knows?

No spoilers, of course, but I wasn’t surprised by the way the story turned out, and nor, I’m afraid did I particularly care. While I loved the descriptions of the landscape, and even the many pages devoted to the building of the dam (unnecessary to the story) kept me reading, I could’t engage with the characters. At one point Jack “watched the scene like a silent picture” and that’s pretty much how I felt about it. 

I feel a bit guilty about thinking this way, because the writing (those odd broken sentences apart) is pretty damned good, but for me fiction relies on characterisation and narrative drive, and in those respects it falls far short. I’ll reread it, though, if for not other reason than the descriptions of Jack climbing High Street or the hard, hard work of farming on the fells, or whatever. But in terms of character, it was over-written, with description substituting for emotion. 

Despite what I’ve just said, I did like this book — just nowhere near as much as I desperately wanted to. 

No comments:

Post a Comment