I didn’t pay much attention to Ross Raisin’s debut novel God’s Own Country when it was published last year, or rather I did pay just enough attention – to his odd name (he sounds more character than author) and the terrible Niall Griffiths-like cover his publishers gave him – to decide I didn’t want to read it. But it kept creeping into my consciousness, and it attracted so much critical praise that I couldn’t ignore it much longer. Fortunately the paperback cover is better, or at least different, and comes complete with ‘belly band’ listing the six awards the novel won or was shortlisted for. Nothing like raising expectations even further, is there?
The cover blurb and first few pages of God’s Own Country made me think of Iain Banks’ debut The Wasp Factory: a narrative by an isolated, damaged and possibly dangerous teenager. However Sam Marsdyke’s voice is more distinctive than Frank Cauldhame’s, mainly because of the lightly cracked syntax and use of Yorkshire dialect. We learn much from the opening pages – that Sam lives on a farm, hates urban visitors (or “towns”) and is apparently has a past.
He looked at me. Them who’ve bought Turnbull’s farm move in day after tomorrow, d’you know that, lad?
No. Who are they?
Towns. And you’ll let them alone, an’ all. He took himself a biscuit from the tin. They’ve a daughter.
This is Sam’s father speaking, or ‘Father’, to indicate the formal relationship they have. (By way of balance, Father calls Sam ‘Nimrod’ and hits him.) It is little precisely placed clues like this which on the one hand satisfy a certain puzzle-solving impulse in the reader, but also seem to mark it with the stamp of creative writing course. (Raisin did an MA at Goldsmiths.) This, in other words, seems like the essence of an unreliable narrator – the clues, the unrevealed references, the piecing together of the story. However, in the end Sam is quite reliable. This is essential for the reader to have the sympathy with him which is clearly intended: if we don’t believe him about bullying at school, wrong accusations of rape, Father’s violence, then there is no level ground to take our bearings from.
It isn’t just ‘towns’ that Sam resents. When others in his region are protesting about the loss of an old pub to the community, he has no more affection for that than he does for the new development (“twenty or thirty red houses, all bright and glishy like a piece of flesh with the skin torn off”). He has no real connection with people at all, and (like a sinister Johnny Morris) prefers to imagine the thoughts of the animals he sees and knows – the whelps of the farm dogs, the birds – or even inanimate objects such as a toy Dracula figure (Sam prowls around Whitby in the later parts of the book). There’s a lovely moment when the new girl in the area (“they’ve a daughter”) is with Sam in the fields watching a ram and ewe rutting, and Raisin has Sam’s perceptions slip beautifully between the ewe and the girl without the reader noticing.
Raisin also has a fine line in descriptive touches where Sam’s limited language mixes with his dialect to become vigorous and evocative.
I crouched behind the hedge, spying through the mesh of thorns at the hubbleshoo of small boys spewing out the bus. They were all over the road in an instant, squawking zigzags through the mass to clobber each other round the head with their bags. Next were the little girls, slower, mingled in with the big-belly boys who weren’t so partial on chasing about. And then the older ones. The girls kept separate from the lads, paired up tantling down the road with a snitter of talk kept close between the two as if all they had to say was secrets, meant for the hearing of nobbut themselves.
The story progresses in a not entirely surprising way, though the pleasure of the book is not in what we are told but in how Sam tells it. At the same time God’s Own Country seems to offer promise as much as achievement, like a meal which despite being delicious, doesn’t entirely fill you. This might be down to the very qualities – polish, neatness – which I found to praise in it. Raisin is, to adopt reviewerly cliché (it’s a cliché here because it’s true), a writer to watch.
Incidentally, readers in North America will find the book under the title Out Backward, which I prefer, as it comes from Sam’s mother (“Janet says I’m not to blame meself. I couldn’t have done different. You must’ve came out backward”) and so is in Sam’s own dialect, rather than from the words of ramblers and ‘blow-ins’ (“oh we must move there, the North York moors is God’s own country”).