If the production team of The Archers ever needs a scriptwriter at short notice, they need look no further than Miranda France. For her latest book, she’s gone back to her roots as the daughter of a farming family and created a novel that’s a cross between an omnibus edition of the radio soap and the gimlet-eyed prose of Stella Gibbons. Hill Farm is set in a nameless village somewhere on the borders of Sussex and Kent. Hayes loves the land, but not farming. His wife Isabel loves the idea of the country but not the reality of the falling-down farm to which she is shackled by duty rather than affection. Their three children are in turn mystified by the behaviour of the grown-ups and transfigured by the natural world they have the luxury of observing for hours on end, watching the colony of newts regenerating their lost limbs in the tank at the bottom of the field, or setting up camp in the barn and spying on the antics of the owl that lives in the rafters.
Isabel feels herself to be trapped in a life for which she’s hopelessly unqualified, knowing nothing about farming and caring even less. The arrival of a young, muscly, free-spirited stockman from Down Under has an inevitable effect on her crushed soul.
But Miranda France has far too much invention and understanding of country life to be satisfied with a straightforward adulterous affair. Just as in an episode from Ambridge, we find ourselves swapping constantly between a number of different plot strands, from the arrival of a couple of lesbian bellringers to the disaster-ridden antics of a truculent pyromaniac called Mikey, via an earnest young vicar from Hackney and the wimpish Mr Payne, who has fled the inner city only to find a greater threat to his karma in the hedgerows of Middle England.