Addlands by Tom Bullough
(Granta, hardback, 304 pages. Out now.)
Review by Martha Sprackland
Tom Bullough’s Addlands is a novel of quiet and cumulative power, a book in which the minutiae and the momentous are indistinguishable and life in the borderlands carries its own ancient magic. This book is an anthem to those places, to the blurred boundary between England and Wales where the historic Marcher county of Radnorshire lies, and to the people who live and work the land there. Sheep-herding country for centuries, the Edw Valley between Painscastle and Hundred House is the backdrop to this expansive, powerful narrative following the Hamer family over seventy years and five generations, though we are able to see farther along that same line in both directions.
At the book’s centre is Oliver Hamer, a fatherless boy born in the first chapter to Etty Hamer, a young woman newly married to Idris, a god-fearing sheep-farmer many years her senior. A cuckoo, a changeling, unconnected by blood to Funnon Farm, Olly nonetheless appears more than any other character a human manifestation of the land itself. Massive, pugnacious, legendary, taciturn and weatherbeaten, he seems an immovable object, an absolute fact of the landscape as much as Mynydd Troed and the mawn pools, as much as the grey larches and the Wye, the shadowed hills and graven Goidelic stones.
Olly grows from a young boy, gathering eggs and feeding the beasts, accompanied always by the farm dogs and, throughout his life, by his pet raven, to a towering figure of mythology. His own son, Cefin, born in the late seventies, grows up in a different world, travelling to exotic countries and studying for a degree in some strand of computing, but the pull is deep and powerful, the magic of the farm strong for him as he grows up, and we leave him possibly on the brink of return, his own child days away from being born.
At its heart Addlands is about continuity, about allegiance and feud, about belonging, about the endurance of place, and Bullough imparts this expertly not only in his characters’ resistance to new ways, but in the Lawrentian saga of the family story; in his trick of accrual, with each iteration of birth, disappointment, union and death, our specific knowledge deepens, until we possess the profound family understanding that comes only through bearing witness to their history, their secrets, pride, shame, their relationships towards each other, and towards the land. It is only by living through this that we gain true fluency.
That fluency could refer also to the glittering trove of local words and semi-corrupt Anglicisations of Welsh place-names Bullough offers, his use of dialect for the most part swerving cliché and in many places providing beautiful and illuminating texture to the prose, like patterns in tree bark: flem, glat, gambrel, prill, mixen, hackling, poochy, larp, chawm, cratch, sclem – these are a joy to read and learn. Bullough, who spent much of his childhood in these places, does provide a glossary on his website, but I’d rather read without, first time round at least, and feel that added complexity and curiosity.
Some interpersonal encounters weigh a little heavy: the confrontation in which Olly’s schoolfriends call him a ‘gypo’, bringing out into the light what we had already come naturally to understand of Olly’s parentage, and in a similar way Etty’s expositive emphasis on learning, a few pages on, feels a little bald, particularly landing as it does at the end of a section, but these complaints are piddling. What is only very occasionally clumsy in the interactions between people is carried along effortlessly by fast-flowing, luminous, exhilarating lines in which Olly rides across the glowing hills at dusk, or defies a treacherous blizzard to dig buried sheep from the deep drifts; encounters moon-daisies and larks, and anthills covered in flowering thyme, wych-elms and skylarks and the deep, dark mythical pools of water concealing the prehistoric roots of trees.
As the narrative pulls over the turn of the century the adamant rumble of modernity becomes louder, bringing to the valley satellite dishes, foot and mouth disease, bulldozers, emoticons, visitors in search of writing retreats, the backyard privy nailed shut, jet aeroplanes booming overhead during the harvest.
Newspaper headlines in bold, scattered throughout the novel, chart unobtrusively the cultural and social change occurring outside the farm and the valley: ‘Brecon Motors, Ltd, are dealers for David Brown Tractors and ploughs’, ‘Let the stars guide you during 1941’, ‘Birmingham offers well-paid factory work to single women aged 21-35; lodgings found, fare paid’ giving way to ‘Teachers may flush drugs’, ‘Gay voters could determine the next MP’, ‘Many believe telematics will provide the biggest opportunity for pro-active development in rural areas since the agricultural revolution four hundred years ago.’
Just months after his son’s birth, Oliver’s jarring departure from a university house party illustrates perfectly the unbelonging figure – his waistcoat and shoes are wrong; he can’t join in the conversation, he bangs his head on a low doorframe and appears an animal in confines, turning about to extricate himself from a building too small to hold him. He is out of place, out of time.
The future is not made explicit, but there is the nature writer’s clarion alarm-call in observations of diminished salmon stock, or a bank previously covered in wildflowers now bare. At the same time, however, there is resistance and a stubborn renewal: the dusty mistletoe hanging from a beam is replenished; Cefin’s wife Ada is close to giving birth in the house Oliver grew up in; Etty, herself an adaptable and long-lived figure of force and permanence, gazing at Oliver’s raven Maureen, realises that ‘she could no longer remember if she had always been the same bird or if there had been several’. When a student of Cefin’s mother’s poetry confronts Olly with the research to her thesis, I feel he turns his gaze outward, straight from the pages, defiant: ‘Post-pastoral? We in’t done yet, girl’ before he turns back to the land, engrossed in his world, and disappears back into the gloaming, the red-gold oaks, the green-gold hazels, where he belongs.
Bullough has written a novel of sublime attention and done so with great authority. Quietly passionate, dexterously evocative and engrossing, Addlands is indisputably relevant. It deserves to be recognised as such.
Along with fellow Caught by the River poet-in-residence Will Burns, Martha Sprackland will host proceedings in the Caught by the River Thames Faber Poetry Chapel, which the two have co-curated. Includes appearances from Patrick McGuinness, Helen Mort, Joe Dunthorne and Virginia Astley. Full Poetry Chapel info here.