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Pub Walks in Underhill Country, By Nat Segnit
First steps for a skilful satirist
Monday 21 March 2011
If Vladimir Nabokov had written episodes of The Archers (with a little script advice from W G Sebald), then he might just have struck a note that chimed with the peculiar music of this beguiling first novel. Narrated by a pompous know-all rambler ("a senior council officer, well-regarded local watercolourist and author of six successful self-published walking guides"), it takes the form of 15 walks in locations that range from Graham Underhill's bypass-threatened Ledbury home to the Himalayan foothills and the icy wastes of Antarctica.
Into Graham's pedantic (but, to be fair, expert and eloquent) notes of the rock formations, flora and fauna, local history and literary heritage of his stamping-grounds intrudes the story of his second marriage to the volcanic Bengali beauty, Sunita.
She, as we soon grasp from his baffled, uxorious asides, seems to have been carrying on behind his cagoule-clad back with a variety of West Midlands worthies, from the wedding snapper and would-be art photographer David to Guy, the trendily green-tinged Tory toff and travel writer. So far, so rural Mike Leigh. Fans may hear in Graham's punctilious voice an echo of Keith from Nuts in May. Among several running, or striding, jokes, he even gives the ABV level of every pint of real ale he downs. Yet Nat Segnit has no qualms about upping the level of difficulty on this, his newcomer's trek.
Pooter-ish comic cuckold he may be, but Graham also does duty as a finely-tuned, satirical vehicle. Like a 4x4 driver let loose in a wildflower-strewn meadow, Segnit cuts a swathe through the precious solemnity of the new British nature writing. Then a fresh peak looms. For Graham genuinely knows his terrain, and the novel packs in, via his learned excursions, the art and philosophy of walking, from Rousseau to Benjamin.
Ambitious, ingenious, probably too attached to its many ideas for a comic novel's good, Pub Walks in Underhill Country tires itself out with an over-schematic design. Yet Segnit can dance as well as clomp. After Sunita goes missing, connoisseurs of unreliable narrators will think they know the way forward. They won't. "Like character, like love, the countryside is always in flux," Graham muses. And so is a novel which, for all its odd boggy patches, introduces a writer with a keen eye, broad horizons and a spring in his step.
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