God's Own Country, By Ross Raisin
An unsettling rural tale that shows why townies fear the countryside
Thursday 06 March 2008
The countryside often unsettles townies. It is as if the farms and fields, with all their evidence of human and animal interdependence, are subtly insinuating our own essential bestiality. Rather than revelling in bucolic bliss, urban visitors may fear they are no more than a cornstalk away from Straw Dogs or Deliverance.
In his first novel, Ross Raisin capitalises on these anxieties with panache. His narrator, Sam Marsdyke, lives with his parents on a sheep farm in the Yorkshire Moors. The Moors are harsher than the picture-postcard Dales, and Marsdyke is their fitting familiar: a malcontent who might have sprung fully formed from their acidic sod. With a lanky frame topped by an elongated head – he is nicknamed "Lankenstein" by schoolmates – Marsdyke lurks in an isolation that allows full play to his fevered imagination.
He fantasises continuously about the animate and inanimate. When he sees a stuffed fox's head in a pub, he reads its mind: "My stars, that looks like a tasty dinner you've got down there, I'd be after a bit of that, if they hadn't nailed my head on the wall". Unfortunately, Marsdyke's obsessing about girls, in particular, triggers delusions accompanied by alarming losses of inhibition. By the novel's start, he has already been expelled from school following an indecent assault. A 15-year-old schoolgirl moves into the farmhouse next door with her family of "towns"; despite his chronic lack of social skills, Marsdyke manages to strike up a friendship with her. The story makes its way through bleak and beautiful terrain towards inevitable disaster.
Among contemporary writers, there is a clear comparison between Raisin and Niall Griffiths; but where Griffiths fully inhabits his characters' passionate lust for life and anger at their underclass existence, Raisin remains a little detached from Marsdyke. This more neutral authorial stance lends the story much of its dark humour. The flipside is that, without a direct identification with Marsdyke's miserable fate or the wider rural predicament, ultimately he cannot become much more than a monster on the loose: yet another rural Frankenstein, or Lankenstein, to play to townies' worst fears.
Nevertheless, Marsdyke's sardonic self-awareness and his inability to stop his fancies from galloping away with him remain wilfully engaging. Raisin's achievement in creating and sustaining such a richly distinctive narrative voice is considerable.
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