Black Dirt by Nell Leyshon

Somerset, where even the robins blaspheme
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The Independent Culture

Nell Leyshon's debut novel is a slow, strange and sinister affair. As a radio playwright Leyshon has learned to use language in a peculiarly descriptive way. The dialogue is smooth and accomplished, with detail and texture cleverly woven into reported speech. But the most affecting prose is that of a playwright finally set free; the close-up details and loving descriptions read as if the author is treating herself after a lifetime of restrictions. The result is measured and slow, lingering over incidentals like the crack in the ceiling and the languorous movement of the trees. "Margaret straightened the counterpane, picked up the glass," she writes. "She dried the bottom of it on her trousers, wiped the water mark it had left on the bedside table, then put it back." It's surprisingly unfrustrating, this patient attention to detail, and achieved with few adjectives. "George closed the door, and the latch settled into the keep." You can almost hear the dust settling and time dripping by in the quiet room

Nell Leyshon's debut novel is a slow, strange and sinister affair. As a radio playwright Leyshon has learned to use language in a peculiarly descriptive way. The dialogue is smooth and accomplished, with detail and texture cleverly woven into reported speech. But the most affecting prose is that of a playwright finally set free; the close-up details and loving descriptions read as if the author is treating herself after a lifetime of restrictions. The result is measured and slow, lingering over incidentals like the crack in the ceiling and the languorous movement of the trees. "Margaret straightened the counterpane, picked up the glass," she writes. "She dried the bottom of it on her trousers, wiped the water mark it had left on the bedside table, then put it back." It's surprisingly unfrustrating, this patient attention to detail, and achieved with few adjectives. "George closed the door, and the latch settled into the keep." You can almost hear the dust settling and time dripping by in the quiet room.

The bulk of the novel is set in the latched room, where Frank has been brought from hospital to die in the room where he was born. He's attended by his daughter, Margaret, and a morphine drip that brings memories of childhood flooding back along with the rush of "silver" through his veins.

Every other chapter is an ancient story told to the young Frank and his sister, Iris, by their father, about the myths that permeate their world like floodwater seeping through the Somerset peat. The family is surrounded by black dirt - in the "ruckles", "hyles" and "winrows" they dig and in thin half-moons under Mother's fingernails. As the children lie on the "blood-warm" earth, Father tells stories of Jesus "the foot washer" and Merlin, kings and gold. Stories of betrayal and sacrifice and a landscape "fed by the blood and bodies in the earth".

Each chapter - Topsoil, Light Peat, Best Black, Fenwood Peat, Blue Lias - digs deeper into the Somerset earth and into Frank's unconscious. And each layer that's peeled away reveals a darker, more sinister one beneath. The innocence of childhood is threatened by strange shadows as Iris's behaviour becomes more and more frightening, and twisted until adults are the innocents and their infants a malevolent force. The elderly Frank's son, George, who is 50 but speaks, thinks and forgets like a child, is the only true innocent, oblivious to the secrets and shame that creep into the cracks like dust.

Black Dirt is a novel with a weird sense of humour, in which saints come to life and robins blaspheme. It slices through the layers of memory and geography, revealing yellow cake crumbs scattered into black earth and crumbs of memory buried under years. Above all, it is written with a restrained delight in language and a sparse beauty.

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