It took me two attempts to grasp Addlands, Tom Bullough’s fourth novel.
In many ways that’s surprising because the book it most resembles is one of my favourites, On the black hill by Bruce Chatwin. Like Chatwin’s novel Addlands is set in a welsh farming community and concerned with how an insular life can provide both reassurance and condemnation. Bullough even writes somewhat like Chatwin, calm, considered, interested in detailing the minuteness of existence on the edge of society. He reveals character through actions and preoccupations.
On the other hand, the difficulty of getting into the novel is not so strange. It’s very slow, especially by modern standards, and the author has an occasional tendency to let his sentences become overlong. The plot, which traces the life of the Hamer family, father Idris, mother Etty and son Oliver, unfolds glacially and the few twists it contains are held back until close to the end. Even the language at times is a challenge, with Bullough employing regional dialect words often and not always explaining them (for example, ‘dank’ meaning fuck). Even the title is archaic, meaning ‘the border of plough land which is ploughed last of all.’
And yet, despite the fact it makes you work hard (or perhaps because of it), Addlands is worth sticking with and leaves a lasting impression.
Although the characters are damaged and unbending, the reader grows close to them, sympathising as their way of life is driven from the world. Idris, haunted by service in WW1, becomes bitter and withdrawn. Etty, hiding an unacceptable secret, hides her intelligence and worth. Oliver fights and drinks and rejects chance after chance to break from destructive patterns. He is, of the three, the one who make most effort to engage with modernity, but this just reinforces the tragedy that he is still is seen as a relic, a caveman, even by the woman who briefly loves him.
You want their decades long struggle to keep the farm intact and in family hands to succeed. Like them you treat with suspicion the growing imposition of the modern world into their valley. You wonder, is electricity necessary, are tractors better than horses, washing machines more effective than mangles?
There is great pleasure in wrapping yourself in the detail of the novel and in the author’s obvious love for the region. In his attempt to resurrect a style of living that to many now must seem as distant as antiquity. You can tell Bullough has walked the lands he describes, spoken to those who still farm it, and those who know its old ways. As the novel concludes this love of locality distils and becomes what the reader is left with as the people who inhabit the fields drift away.
I suspect many will find Addlands a struggle to get into, but it is worth persevering for a novel which is deep, elegant and redolent of place, of hiraeth. If you persist you get your reward.
Tom Bullough spent most of his childhood (just) on a hill farm in Radnorshire, which looked a bit like Penllan in The Claude Glass and is the source of his enthusiasm for Wales, hills, castles, birds of prey and How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban. For a couple of years, he lived on a strawberry farm in Herefordshire, which had a castle of its own and complimentary strawberries. Then he returned to the border.
For the past ten years Tom has lived in Breconshire. Firstly, in a remote, inconvenient and entirely beautiful house above the Elan Valley reservoirs in the Cambrian Mountains. As he has since discovered, the house is well-known in certain circles for an alien abduction in 1909. It was also the original inspiration for Peter J. Conradi’s superb At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire Pastoral.
Now he lives in the Brecon Beacons with his wife Charlie and their two small, vocal children. It is here that he has written Konstantin and Addlands – often while tramping round the hill, Mynydd Illtyd. The hall is papered with The Tempest, Lanark by Alasdair Gray, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, The Iron Man by Ted Hughes and The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban.
Addlands was published by Granta on 2nd June 2016.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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Read more of Joseph Surtees’s reviews:
The Owl Always Hunts at Night
Sherlock Holmes: The Counterfeit Detective
Mr Iyer Goes To War
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
Impact by Rob Boffard
Hack by Kieran Crowley
Habit by Stephen McGeah
The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson
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