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”).
I avoided this myself because it seemed so derivative of Niall Griffith’s ‘Sheepshagger’ which itself was clearly ‘influenced’ by Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Child of God’. There’s only so many times I want to meet ‘marginalised youngsters’ who spy on ‘the newcomers’ which leads to ‘devastating consequences for all’. Having said all that the extracts read well so I might be tempted in the future.
I didn’t realise Sheepshagger had a similar premise, gav; the connection I made was purely with the cover design (though presumably it was intentional).
Incidentally, apropos the final point in my post, I understand that Out Backward was in fact Raisin’s original title for the book, which was changed to God’s Own Country for the UK edition.
Good review, John. I’m looking forward to getting hold of my copy of the paperback. Nice cover, too.
Ross Raisin ?? Gilbert Grape??
John: I love that you post both UK and North American covers. On this one, I have to observe that both these covers don’t serve the author very well. The North American hardcover version is almost as bad (maybe Raisin is just too confusing for cover designers). I don’t know how to send it to you but check out the Canadian paperback cover at chapters website — I have no idea how our market deserved a separate paperback edition, but I do think we ended up with the best cover. Not sure it will be enough to make me buy the book, however — although it tilts me that way.
At the risk of being barred from this blog I am admitting to being attracted by the cover. I love woodcuts and when I clicked through from KevinfromCanada’s blog I saw the cover and thought “Oh what’s this book?”
It’s OK craftypeople, the cover above is actually the paperback cover, not the original hardback (you can see that here).
You misunderstood me and you can string me up on the barbed wire with that old goat but I like the woodcut, I would have picked that book up but NOT the skull/barbed wire one. The title doesn’t grab me either and I hadn’t heard of the author.
So what would I pick up? Author I HAD heard of e.g Brian Moore (but he’s dead so unlikely to write more books). But why did I pick up my first Brian Moore? Because I caught sight of a very slim volume called “Catholics” and I was intrigued. One I saw it had a monastery and monks in it i was decided. I’m also a sucker for a quote as a title as long as it isn’t on an “airport book” – you know thick and foiled with bling or cutouts.
Give me a woodcut and you’re halfway there.
God’s Own Country – your hardback version – was an instant turnoff.
I’m ready for my lynching now Mr DeMille.
No no, we are in agreement, that’s what I’m saying too! Barbed-wire cover bad, woodcut cover better!
First off, I like the woodcut cover the best. Second, I do believe I shall be on the lookout for this the next time I have money with wich to buy books.
Third, there seems to be an awful lot of books like this around, especially over the last thirty years or so. Along with “Sheepshagger” (apparently, anyway — I haven’t read it), there was Patrick McCabe’s “The Butcher Boy”, William Trevor’s “The Children of Dynmouth”, and — connected in a very loose sense, I admit — Duncan McLean’s “The Bunker Man”. The connective tissue being, I suppose, books set in rural sections of the UK that involve children and madness and violence of some kind. “Dynmouth” is the oldest of the three, being published only three years after McCarthy’s “Child of God”, and I doubt Trevor is being influenced by McCarthy anyway, but beyond him, is that the reason? McCarthy, I mean? He’s a writer who really can sink his hooks into those who respond to his work, so I wonder if his influence is showing itself in these books. I don’t know, I’m just making this up as I go.
Also, I’m not really complaining, as I liked all of the books I mentioned, save “The Bunker Man”, which I did NOT like very much.
Niall Griffiths made it clear around the time of ‘Sheepshagger”s publication that Child of God was very much an inspiration, and has went on to review McCarthy’s work – I think there’s one for ‘The Road’. To be honest, I think he *had* to admit that because the book is scarily reminiscent of McCarthy’s great book, but *is* a thrilling novel in its own way and by far the best novel to come from that school of Griffiths/Welsh/Warner…
Well that’s interesting, gavin. I don’t think I’ve read Child of God – and from the references to it above, I suspect I would have remembered. I did go through what I might generously call a ‘McCarthy phase’ when All the Pretty Horses came out, when I bought most of his books purely on the strength of the opening paragraph of Horses. Of course I couldn’t get through any of them, including Horses – or at least I may have finished one of them (Blood Meridian or Suttree) but nonetheless can’t remember a damn thing one way or the other.
I found him very difficult, and either wouldn’t or couldn’t give him the attention and effort he deserved. I was mighty surprised when I read The Road and it turned out so, well, readable.
I read this a few days ago now, and, though it hasn’t stayed with me, I did enjoy it. Marsdyke is convincing, and once Raisin got the voice the story motored along apace. It would’ve been good if the other characters, particularly ‘the girl’, were more than sketched out, but that’s a difficult ask with a psychotic narrator.
This book struck me very deeply, maybe because the characters seem so familiar to me. I surely didn’t see Sam as psychotic. Like some of my neighbors in rural Vermont, he is a person who spends most of his time in the company of animals. The miracle about Sam is that he is so able to express his perception of the beauty around him. I understood the title Out Backward to refer to the outdoors behind his house, the place he yearned for in the end.
I also felt that the way he treated the girl after she “misbehaved” was exactly the same as he would have treated Sal, the character in the book that he really loved. Not punishment but training.