It is winter in north Yorkshire. On the brink of New Year, Jake, a laconic, isolated former farmhand in his seventies, stands alone on the moors with no idea where to go or what to do. Traumatised by the death of his wife and consumed by thoughts of a child he knows cannot be his, he is a beleaguered man. He is also in flight from the law, following the murder of an elderly resident in a local care home. With nowhere to turn, he falls back on an old friend, Sheila, for sanctuary and solace.
In The Mating Habits of Stags, Ray Robinson describes Jake’s attempts to make sense of his troubled existence, while also providing a wonderfully empathetic account of Sheila, who, while trying to support her demanding adult daughter Edith, struggles to come to terms with the possibility of Jake’s criminal past and the toll it might take on her own life.
Shortlisted for the Portico Prize, the novel is full of candour, lyricism and compassion. Rainwater is ‘a liquid metronome’; a bereaved ewe licks at the carcass of her offspring and recognises ‘the scent of her making, and all that she is’.
Robinson’s effort to conjure tension and bucolic noir can verge on the melodramatic — Jake notices ‘snagged on the wire fence next to him’ strands of ‘reamy-white fleece fluttering in the wind, tufts of wool in scabs of blood’. But it doesn’t impinge too much on the novel’s exploration of love, guilt, loss, brutality and betrayal.‘I didn’t want this to be just another book about male violence,’ the author has said in a recent interview — and it isn’t.