Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month

Melissa Harrison | 22nd April 2014

The Valley jacket

The Valley: A Hundred Years in the Life of a Family
by Richard Benson
Bloomsbury, 544 pages.

Reviewed by Melissa Harrison

One of the most important things life can teach us is that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’: that the world we inherit is not immutable, but contingent; changeable, not eternal. We grow up in a family, and a community, and believe it to be ‘just the way things are’ – when in fact it’s been formed (and is still being formed) by the myriad decisions individuals have made. Seeing that – truly understanding that – we can decide where to put our energies: into maintaining the things about our immediate world that we love, changing the aspects that need making over, or simply forging our own path. Either way, we have a choice about the shape our own lives can take. We have perspective.

Richard Benson’s impressive, compelling family history is a short cut to that kind of insight, compressing huge generational shifts – social, moral, educational, technological – into one continuous narrative to create the kind of vertiginous panorama that prompts us to look at our own lives afresh. Having said that, the words ‘short cut’ must be used advisedly: this is a huge project, a door-stopper, a handbag-crippler. And even so, there are parts where you can feel how much more there really was to say.

Starting with his great-grandparents Walter and Annie meeting at a spiritualist meeting in the early years of the last century, Benson lays out, in minute detail, the lives of four generations of his family in a mining community in South Yorkshire, following their fortunes right up until the present day. It’s a large cast of characters (you may find yourself wishing there was a family tree), but Benson brings to each of his relatives not only a forensic quality of attention, but a humane one, too, so that, while their flaws are never papered over or excused, they are given their rightful context as aspects of real, and rounded, people.

As well as being the story of a family – with all the intrigue and secrets and drama that entails – The Valley is, as its title suggests, the story of a community, one that, with the last of the pit closures, has now largely been lost. And for those of us without a family connection to mining, or indeed to heavy industry, it’s eye-opening: a picture of a very different England to the bucolic, rural version we’re far more frequently shown. And yet this ‘other England’ couldn’t have been more important, powering the nation – literally – through booms, busts and two World Wars. It’s good to see the pride with which Benson restores our coal mining industry to centre stage.

But given even more room than the miners themselves, with their extraordinary courage through strike after strike, are the women, and their attempts – some thwarted, some triumphant – to become authors of their own lives, despite a lack of education and opportunity, despite hardship, social circumscription and (something Benson is admirably clear-sighted about), men’s violence against them. There is a calm, unvoiced admiration in his description of the three generations of women which, taken cumulatively, is very moving.

In telling the story of a family in this way, with techniques borrowed from novels, there’s always the danger that your reader will wonder, ‘But how did the author know that?’ and ‘Could it really have happened that way?’ The Valley, however, is written with such scrupulousness, such bravery and tact, that at no point does one feel anything but utterly convinced by the richly detailed picture Benson paints. It is, in some ways, an ordinary story of ordinary people; but in the telling, it becomes – as we all are – remarkable, complex, and unique.

Melissa Harrison is the author of Clay (Bloomsbury). Her next novel, At Hawthorn Time (also Bloomsbury), will be published in April 2015.

Richard Benson and Melissa Harrison will be among our guests at this summer’s Port Eliot festival.