A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It is 1976 and England is suffocating. The long, dry spring has given way to a summer of severe drought, with standpipes in the streets and a rallying cry to ‘save water, share a bath!’ For the farmers, life has become a living hell – a daily struggle to make ends meet. The fields are tinder dry, the earth is dusty and scorched and the rivers are drying up to a trickle.
Jess and Tom live on a remote farm in the English countryside with their increasingly difficult and brutal father, Henry. Their mother, Sylvie, walked out years before and Jess is struggling with the role of mother figure to Tom, as well as skivvy and hired hand for her father. Jess just wants to be a normal teenager, to go to dances and kiss boys, to take her exams and dream of a future far away from milking cows and ploughing fields. Daydreaming about her mother’s return, Jess discovers Sylvie’s old diary and begins to uncover the shocking truth about her disappearance.
As the drought grips ever tighter, as the water level of the river begins to drop, the menace in the air builds until it reaches boiling point, with a confrontation between Jess and her father that has devastating consequences.
As a UK farmer’s daughter who was twelve years old in that summer of 1976, I was naturally enough drawn to this book and it is indeed a very lyrical read. The countryside and the effect of the devastating drought during its inexorable progression through the year are expertly described, and brought back some interesting memories for me. Plus it’s always very heartening to read a book that includes back issues of Farmers Weekly. A classy publication, naturally.
Not only that but the character of Jess is very powerful indeed, and she’s an excellent voice with which to convey the setting and situations of the novel. I also thought Tom, her younger brother, was well depicted – and really this is a book where the young people are very much in the limelight. This helps convey the plot through fresh eyes, where a main older viewpoint might perhaps have grown stale.
Which brings me to the voice of Jess’ mother, Sylvie. Her backstory sections felt very much like an interloper on the scene and I didn’t appreciate being taken away from what was happening with Jess and Tom. Soon I noticed myself skipping through these, as I wasn’t quite sure what their purpose was, apart from to emphasise how Jess’ father Henry is the Villain of the Piece (more on this later …) and how the farm is in trouble even before 1976. Oh and to create the tension of Sylvie’s disappearance of course – though this might have been better conveyed through the use of her diaries, as found by Jess. It also irritated me that (SLIGHT spoiler alert!) half way through, we are told exactly what happened to Sylvie, and all that tension is instantly lost. With just a little more judicious editing, and by means of cutting a mere page of text, the tension could have remained until it actually needed fulfilment later on through Jess’ viewpoint.
That said however, the ultimate revelation about Sylvie is more than a tad melodramatic, and I wasn’t at all convinced Jess would act in the way she did once the discovery had occurred. Really I was quite cross about it all as I don’t think the plot needed quite so much stretching.
Turning then to Henry, I have to say I thought he was a very poorly depicted character, and deserved far better than Allnatt allowed him. Actually, caricature is more the word, I think, rather than character – and this aspect lets down what is at heart a pretty good novel. There is no redeeming feature about Henry, and I soon became rather sorry for him even though I believe I was supposed to hate him, and took to laughing with disbelief every time he surfaced on the page. In my experience, absolutely no farmers – at least in Essex – were ever this narrow-minded, bitter, cruel and ridiculous to their families in 1976. He’s like something from the 18th century. Here are some examples of Henry’s general wickedness: he keeps Jess off school during the run up to her A levels as he doesn’t want her to leave home or have a career; he shows no concern for Tom or Jess when a fire devastates the farm buildings (in which Tom is trapped); he treats his children like strangers in his own home and frequently ignores them; he’s rude to every single neighbour and pretty nasty to his own parents too. Really, the list goes on.
So call me old-fashioned but having Henry show a glimmer of normality and even a drop of the milk of human kindness would have been far more effective than this unnatural monster. Indeed, his caricature robs the book of a deep part of its family tension which otherwise would have been both rich and devastating.
Besides Allnatt can write decent menfolk if she puts her mind to it – Jess’ grandfather is great and the most sensible person in the book; and Philip, the young man who starts a relationship with Jess later in the story is simply wonderful and I would have married him like a shot if I’d met anyone like him in my part of the world in the ’70s, I’m sure. More of Philip and the grandfather would have been marvellous.
However, and finally, I must say that the ending to this novel is utterly perfect in every way and (almost) cancelled out some of the oddities and judgement errors that led up to it. How I love a pitch-perfect finale – so if Allnatt keeps up that sort of quality in the whole of her next book, I’d definitely be interested in reading it.
A Mile of River, Black Swan Press 2009, ISBN 978-0552774352
Also available as an ebook
[Anne remembers the summer of 1976 in the farming community all too well, and secretly enjoyed not having to bathe too often. Her latest book is The Truth About Butterflies, a lesbian erotic collection]