I've just finished reading God's Own Country, the 2008 debut novel of Ross Raisin. And its compact 210 pages were 'gradely' compelling.
Ostensibly the book is a tale of a Walter Mitty-esque farmer's son and his obsession with the daughter of middle class incomers who move into the next door farm; a fixation which, rather predictably, ends in tragedy, although not necessarily the denouement you expect.
But the real interest in this story lies in its rootedness in a particular landscape, the North York Moors, and its narration by the unfortunate but dangerously deluded protagonist himself, Sam Marsdyke, in vernacular language liberally sprinkled with Yorkshire dialect.
Although the going is not as initially linguistically tough for the uninitiated as, say, an Irvine Welsh novel, there are many words and sayings casually thrown into Sam's thought's and pronouncements that will be very new to many readers. Often adding to the humour that runs through the novel, the language also provides a refreshingly alternate take on describing the landscape that is not merely the setting but the very pulse of the story.
"I got up early, feeling bruff, fit for anything. I could see outdoors the wood it was a gradely day. The rain clouds had buggered off west over the Moors to go piss on the Dales and it was belting bright and warm, perfect suited for us to get moving".
The North York Moors provide a fitting location. Sam himself is an outsider, a loner: contemptible of and patronisingly scorned by the 'towns', whether local or outsiders, who are slowly colonising his patch of 'God's Own Country'. Although a National Park and place of stark and often understated beauty, the Moors are part of that belt of far-eastern England ranging from the Wash to the Northumberland coast that is both gifted and cursed to be unknown and unvisited by much of the population of the wider world. Despite the common talk and received wisdom of our 'overcrowded island', there are many areas where settlement and people are thinly spread, and this is one of them.
"Their sort were loopy for farmhouses - oh we must move there, the North York Moors is God's own country - but they couldn't give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out the bedroom. They know nothing what I knew of it. Spaunton, Rosedale, Egton, thirty moors each bigger than your eye could frame, fastened together by valleys cutting into the earth between, lush with forest, flowers and meadow grass, where there weren't towns and villages drying it all up".
This combination of first person narrative by a rural innocent, embodying a way of life threatened by creeping (sub)urbanisation, and a storyline crackling with tension in a knowable landscape of mud, wind and burning sun sets up a book that you can treasure; one that allows you to vividly visualise and inhabit the places in which the storyline takes place. And bringing to mind not just the language of Welsh's Trainspotting, but also the writing style and content of Alan Garner's The Owl Service, Barry Hine's A Kestrel for a Knave, Alan Warner's These Demented Lands and Paul Kingsnorth's poem, Kidland.
Garner, Alan, 2007 The Owl Service. London: Harper Collins
Hines, Barry, 2000 A Kestrel for a Knave. London: Penguin
Kellett, Arnold, 1994 The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore. Settle: Smith
Kingsnorth, Paul, 2011 Kidland and other poems. County Clare: Salmon
Raisin, Ross, 2009 God's Own Country. London: Penguin
Warner, Alan, 1998 These Demented Lands. London: Vintage
Welsh, Irvine, 1993 Trainspotting. London: Madarin