Lucy Jones reviews our February Book of the Month – Brian Carter’s ‘A Black Fox Running’ – which was published in a new edition last week by Bloomsbury.
When I heard that A Black Fox Running was a story about talking foxes, I assumed it would be a book mostly for children – like those of Brian Jacques’ magnificent Redwall series, or The Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis – but I was wrong. It’s a strange, profound and adult book about sex and death and violence. It could probably get an 18 rating, depending on how it was adapted for the screen. The novel was first published in 1981, but went out of print. Author Melissa Harrison, who credits the book with inspiring her to become a writer, sent it to Bloomsbury to suggest it was published. And now here it is.
First off, Carter has a strikingly visceral, gutsy and imaginative way of writing about the natural world and the animal’s 360 degree perception of it. ‘Wulfgar nuzzled the texture of the day, sifting rabbit smell from the scores of other scents which showered his knowing,’ he writes. He communicates a sense of the dynamic, symbiotic relationships between organisms. ‘Moss, lichens and germs sprouted from the bark of the oak tree’, for example. Some of the relations are simple but perfect: ‘The teasels bent under the weight of goldfinches’. His use of language is virtuosic and playful and sometimes Baker-esque. Birds ‘freckle’ the sky; they ‘greedied’ on beetles. The pages come to life; you could almost imagine a worm crawling out from between them.
Carter’s world has a fullness to it, from the macro to the micro. The Milky Way dusts Wulfgar’s fur with ‘soft light’ while ‘insects ticked against the leaves’, and worms emerge from the soil with ‘a whisper of tiny bristles’. I felt transported to the natural world he describes, with all its infinite variety, its sounds, and smells.
And he doesn’t shy away from the violence of the non-human world. The hedgehog Earthborn ‘uncurled and the life was crunched out of him’. A wren is killed by a clap of thunder. Nor, too, the violence of man. Wulfgar’s nemesis is the trapper Scobie and his horrible, stupid dog. Scobie’s hatred for foxes is explained by Carter as a result of a horrific experience in the war. He is drinking himself to death as, one imagines, a result of the trauma he experienced in conflict. Carter’s vivid sense of the grotesque is let out its full slack with Scobie and his wart. Jacko’s vileness is explained by his mean owner.
There is a danger in books about animals that they will veer into sentimentality. The anthropomorphism of animals has been unfashionable for a long while. But Carter created believable, multi-dimensional characters in Wulfgar, his mate, Teg, the shamanic soothsayer Stargrief and the often amusing supporting cast.
His portrait of Wulfgar and Teg’s love and experience of parenthood is particularly tender and well-observed. ‘Teg breathed a score of ridiculous endearments onto the tangle of little bodies that lay beneath her. She called the cubs her catkins, her morning dew, her primrose buds,’ he writes. He captures both the resentment of the exhausted lactating female and her ambivalence about lactation coming to an end, the ‘loss of intimacy with her young’. Wulfgar, too, is experiencing the resentment of the new father who feels left out and a bit bored. Having cubs triggers a new kind of existential crisis for him and he feels fear ‘performing its cold, colic tricks in his stomach’. Stargrief explains it is anxiety for Teg and the cubs which makes him see doom everywhere he looks. The whole sequence is extraordinarily psychologically astute. Wulfgar even practises mindfulness at one point.
This lost classic is, quite simply, remarkable, and I’m so pleased that Harrison has managed to bring it back into print for a new generation.
A Black Fox Running (Bloomsbury, hardback, 400 pages) is out now and available here.
Lucy Jones is a journalist and the author of Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain. You can follow her on Twitter here.