Nell Leyshon: Black Dirt

Nell Leyshon’s debut novel Black Dirt (2004) is a salutary indicator of just how many good books are published each year that completely pass us by. I’d never heard of it before book blogger extraordinaire dovegreyreader named it her favourite among all the novels she read last year (and that’s a lot of novels). This, I hope, is a validation of the purpose of all the frantic scribblers in the book blogging community, sharing our enthusiasm for titles we think others might have missed (what do you mean, you haven’t read The Waters of Thirst yet!).

Black Dirt

Black Dirt is one of those books which fits an awful lot into a very small space: 186 pages, mostly dialogue.  The story is divided into three frames: the first is the present day, where elderly Frank has been taken home from hospital to die, pumped full of morphine on demand (“Silver water in his veins”), and surrounded by his children, including the childlike, mentally restricted George.  As the morphine causes him to drift in and out of consciousness (and reality), Frank recalls his childhood where his sister Iris began to behave strangely: we feel sure no good can come of this.  He also remembers the stories his father told him, histories of England from Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of the Holy Grail, through Kings Arthur and Alfred to the dissolution of the monasteries.  These stories, some less well known to me than they should be, are given vivid life by Leyshon’s use of down-to-earth language and wit: oh, and talking birds:

The robin reached out and touched Joseph’s beard with its beak.  ‘That’d make nice nesting material.’

‘You’re not having it,’ Joseph said.

‘All right.  Keep your hair on.  I’m only saying.’

The setting, of Glastonbury and surrounding area, is central to the book.  The land is frequently flooded, and the waterlogged sensation gets into the reader’s skin and helps amplify the mythic feeling of the stories.  This is all the more remarkable given the limited conversations the characters have – well, they are family, after all – exchanges often so banal as to be (deliberately, I think) comic, and which put me in mind of Magnus Mills.  Leyshon, a playwright by day, has nothing to learn in the realm of dialogue.

The middle storyline, of Frank’s childhood and What Iris Did, builds to a suffocating climax, and the final revelation loses no power for being foreseeable.  The temptation with such an smoothly written and readable book must be to rush through it, though taking it slowly fits in better with the sultry pace of the characters’ lives, and is in the end more rewarding.

Black Dirt is a book I would never have heard of, let alone read, without the recommendation of dovegreyreader, and for that I salute her.  It’s a creepy but addictive tale, faithful to its particular setting, and benefiting greatly from that faith, but never excluding.  The symbolism of water is mesmerising, and comparisons to Graham Swift’s Waterland (such as one critic makes on the cover) are for me wide of the mark, as I’ve tried three times to read that damn book and never managed it yet.  No such fear with Black Dirt, which I had to hold myself back from rushing through too quickly.  Now, who’s next for the Black Dirt blog relay?


  1. Brilliant review John, and you’ve added more to the book for me. The water imagery and the suffocating way it traps the family still resonates now and as for George! Poor George, I’m still terribly worried about him. I too wonder how such a good read slipped beneath my radar especially given its Orange listing, I’m normally Mrs Vigilance there.As for Waterland, I shouldn’t have been disappointed to hear Graham Swift say he was London born and bred and had hardly been to the Fens, but somehow I was. Nell Leyshon conveys a real depth of feeling for the Somerset levels, an area she knows well, and now John, your final task, take a look at the book Somerset by John Caple, a Glastonbury artist. Nell has written the most amazing forward for the book.

  2. Black Dirt has been duly added to the wishlist. It sounds fascinating. The Waters of Thirst too! But have you read Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage? My recommendation of the year. 🙂

  3. I’ve had this one on a waiting list for a while. I get quite anxious thinking of all the amazing books that I might be missing. Some of the best books I’ve ever read are ones I’ve stumbled across in charity shops etc, drawn in by the cover or title. Blogs and various online lists help lead us toward those who might slip through the nets.

  4. Victoria, I am eagerly awaiting the paperback of The Lizard Cage in a month or so, as it was also book of the year for fellow blogger Lizzy Siddal as well as another trusted source (apart from you!). It has a lot to live up to now!

  5. This is what I like about certain book blogs, you get ideas on what to read that you would have never thought of.

    I am still thinking about adding Black Dirt to my list.

  6. John — you just have to read Graham Swift’s Waterland. It’s a wonderful novel.

    This evening, sit yourself down with a large glass of wine, pluck it off the shelf for the fourth time (really? you’ve tried three times before? I was hooked from the first page) and drift into it. You’ll be glad you did, I promise.

    And if you really don’t like it after yet another go, well, I give up on you!


  7. You’re a hard taskmaster, Mark! My copy of Waterland is languishing in a box of stuff due for the charity shop – three strikes and you’re out – but I might rescue it since you ask so nicely!

    I agree incidentally about being hooked from the first page – it’s got a great opening. It was further on that I began to flounder in the Fens.

    Sadly it won’t be tonight, wine or no wine, as I’m currently tackling my first Penelope Fitzgerald and then have some very exciting proofs to tempt me, including the wonderful Andrew Crumey’s forthcoming Sputnik Caledonia and Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati, both 500+ pages! What was that we were saying about a 200 page maximum…?

  8. I always get Penelope Fitzgerald mixed up with Penelope Lively (whose Moon Tiger I recall enjoying many moons ago)!

    You must rescue that copy of Waterland — tell me which charity shop it was destined for and — if it’s a national charity shop chain — I’ll give the same charity 5 books from my pile of joy kinda to make up for their loss! 😀

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