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Addlands: where the new nature writing meets the novel

At its best, Tom Bullough's work glimmers and shimmers

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

Addlands Tom Bullough

Granta, pp.304, £14.99

There have been a number of attempts to graft the style of the so-called new nature writing onto the novel: works such as Melissa Harrison’s Clay, for instance, or Amy Sackville’s Orkney. Tom Bullough’s Addlands is a very creditable contribution to this genre. The form does have an intrinsic problem: how does one dramatise seeing? The solution here is that the characters — the reserved Idris Hamer, his stoical wife, Etty, and their son Oliver, a principled bruiser — are farmers in the Welsh borders. Their livelihood depends on being attuned to changes in the environment.

The novel has an elegant structural conceit. It begins in 1941, with Oliver being born and his father telling the midwife that ‘I had best fodder the beasts, I had’, then cycles through the decades to conclude in 2011. At the same time, the individual chapters inch through the seasons, from ‘cloud-scratched skies’ back to the ‘pearl-like’ mistletoe. Newspaper cuttings intersperse the text, as neat little indicators of social change.

The narrative is, to coin another genre, Elegiac-Georgic. Idris is a natural conservative, who thinks tractors will break down more frequently than horses. Technology and politics encroach on farming throughout, from the War Ag to (inevitably) the foot-and-mouth crisis. But the characters are not propositions in a thesis about postwar agriculture. Though she would not use the word, the resilient Etty is a feminist; Idris, though inflexible and laconic, is, if not good, then honourable, and quietly damaged; Oliver chafes at and embraces his fate. It may not be as visceral as, say, Cynan Jones’s The Dig, but there is no way these lives would be described as easy.

One of the most impressive features of the book is how language changes. It is like an incarnation of the argument put forward in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. In the opening chapter we get ‘whilcar’, ‘fescue’, ‘copps’, ‘reens’, ‘glat’, ‘tump’ and ‘flem’. ‘Addlands’ itself means the border of a ploughed field, the part done last — and this is a novel of last things. In the final chapter we get ‘Whazzup (-;’. The lilt and timbre of spoken voices is handled beautifully, but even here what is distinctive is gradually eroded.

There are a few infelicities. Is it necessary that almost every female character, however fleeting, must have their breasts described? One character goes on to become a ‘post-pastoral’ poet, which seems more like a jibe than essential to the story. Nevertheless, at its heights the prose glimmers and shimmers. ‘Somebody had to defend the margins, to keep the past in its place’ is stated towards the denouement, and the novel does exactly that.

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