After Brock, By Paul Binding
Animal magic on the borders between youth and maturity
The badger features in country tales rby the likes of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, and in Alison Uttley's The Tales of Four Pigs and the Brock. The name derives from Old English brocc or the Welsh broch. Yet Paul Binding's After Brock has to be the first grown-up novel punctuated by sightings of the creature, each one a game-changer in the triangular relationship between Pete (the father), Nat (his son) and Sam (Pete's friend). The rural context is the Marches; the topology is fundamental, and the lyrical descriptions of the Welsh Border and its animals a beautiful treat.
The story opens with Nat's disappearance from his Herefordshire home. His recovery, via helicopter and with a broken ankle, is closely documented by a local reporter, Luke, who researches and then refracts its relevance to Pete's hidden past. For Pete too "vanished" into the Cambrian hills following an escapade with the glamorous Sam, back in the 1970s. Sam invited Pete out for his first night drive in his first car. As they cross into Shropshire, "a large shambling creature, dark-haired, much the colour of the evening itself" moves "at a slow trot towards a clump of ferns beneath a modest outcrop of rock". It signals mutual closeness and disclosure between the friends as they discuss their unsatisfactory parents and their need for liberation. Pete also obtains an early inkling that there could well be more to learn from animals than from friends.
By New Year, Sam and Pete are jaunting across the Welsh border to spot UFOs and meet a New Age avatar at Llanfyllin. While Sam's head is again filled with higher things, Pete mentally salutes a fresh sighting of a badger. While Pete finds "comfort and satisfaction" in the brock, Sam is hell-bent on spotting UFOs. The pair fall out of kilter, falling first into tenderness and then to violence as Pete, "the junior partner in a madcap enterprise", attempts to remain grounded and Sam takes flight into fantasy. He accuses his friend of betrayal and then abandons him, wounded and bleeding, amid the Cambrian hills and the icy night.
It is only at the end that Pete understands both youthful attraction and a desire for freedom from Sam's domination – what he meant by his resolution that "when this (or that) adventure was over, he would pay badgers the kind of attention he had hitherto given to less sensate subjects". Reparations with older generations may have become impossible, but making peace with the next is all the more pressing.
Father's and son's rites of passage prompts a review of tangled lives in this novel of three parts: part lads' rural road-trip, part solo voyage of discovery, part philosophical assessment. Yet it is the descriptions of the land that are the principal joys of this book. Mothers and girlfriends are relegated to the margins. Their impact on the boys' lives seems less than that of the badgers.
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