Friday, 10 April 2009

God's Own Country - Ross Raisin

Read: November 2007

The launch of a well hyped debut novel often gives way to exaggeration as publishers fall over themselves to liken a new talent to established authors and throw around platitudes as though they are confetti. In this case the authors are Patrick McCabe, Irving Welsh and Roddy Doyle and the platitudes numerous. God’s Own Country, the first novel from 27 year old Ross Raisin, is described in its pitch as “An utterly original and memorable narrative voice: menacing and brilliantly funny – this book will resonate long after you read the last page and finally release your breath.”

Despised in his village, Sam Marsdyke imagines himself the constant subject of gossip. He lives in the Yorkshire Moors, helping out on his father’s sheep farm. Expelled from school for an assault which rancours him still he spends his days wandering the moors and watching as the area is overtaken by ‘towns’ buying up farms as second homes, playing at country life and filling the area with trendy pubs, wine bars, and delicatessens with their endless selection of jars. Then a family from Muswell Hill moves into a neighbouring farm and when Sam strikes up and unlikely friendship with their rebellious teenage daughter he begins to see that not all the newcomers are entirely without merit. Soon they are plotting to steal Sam’s favourite dog back from its new ‘town’ owners and he is teaching her about rearing sheep. But as the spectre of his expulsion from school grows the plot takes a sinister turn and the friendship between a teenage girl acting out and solitary farm boy takes a dangerously delusional twist.

Narrated by Sam in a broad Yorkshire accent, God’s Own Country has a voice which is undoubtedly its own. And it works beautifully, the colloquial language suits the rugged landscape and creates a novel with a real sense of setting. Reading it you can feel the fresh air on your skin, smell the livestock and hear the menacing rustle of the wind as it passes through the increasing civility of the village. Sam’s voice is both funny and poignant: he has a fresh way of viewing the world and some of his descriptions are astoundingly powerful. The book begins with an observation – “Ramblers. Daft sods in pink and green hats. It wasn’t even cold. They moved down the field swing-swaying like a line of drunks, addled with the air and the land, and the smell of manure.” And much of the book is like this. Sam invites the reader to see the world from his perspective, the perspective of farming communities being overtaken by “the rambling classes” as he titles them. And through his expressive voice he draws the reader to his side, quietly, subtly, despite his obvious and occasionally shocking bad side. And although it can be dense going at first, once you get into the flow the prose becomes deceptively compelling. Deceptive because it is only the flow of the language as it echoes off the Moors that can keep the readers interest in what is ultimately a dull and predictable plot.

The big problem is that you know exactly what is going to happen virtually before you pick up the book. Early on Sam’s mother makes the glib statement: “if a person’s got bad in ‘em it’ll leach its way out, no matter if they plan it or other.” And you get the impression this is the crux of the book, this simplistic expression holds the basis of the entire novel. And it is such a dull premise. You just know that when the pitch refers to a “terrifying menacing turn” it is going to mean a deluded character with a personality disorder will do something horrifying, usually rape, and, or, murder. And that is pretty much what happens. The plot has absolutely nothing going for it. There is nothing worse, to my mind, than this sort of 'lets get inside the mind of a psycho' fiction. It was boring the first time it was done. Now its just pitiful. God’s Own Country is basically Sebastian Faulks last novel Engelby, written in Yorkshire dialect. It is so unbelievably predictable that the only suspense is gained from deceiving yourself into believing that the plot cannot be so obvious, that the author has a grand trick up his sleeve. But he doesn’t.

At no point in the plot did I find my breath caught in suspense, at no point did I race through pages desperate to find out what happens. And when I finished, it was with a sigh of relief, not amazement which was finally released. There are not many books which I have forgotten as quickly or with as little regret as this. And yet there are lots of things going for God’s Own County: in Sam Marsdyke it has a genuinely interesting character whose view of the world is fascinatingly fresh and pulls no punches in those it targets. I just hope that next time Ross Raisin writes a novel, he gives his character a plot worthy of his characters voice.

4 out of 10

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