Sunset Song“Now that was in summer, the time of fleas and glegs and golochs in the fields, when stirks would start up from a drowsy cud-chewing to a wild and feckless racing, the glegs biting through hair and hide to the skin below the tail-rump. Echt was alive that year with the thunder of herds, the crackle of breaking gates, the splash of stirks in tarns, and last with the groans of Nell, the old horse of Guthrie’s, caught in a daft swither of the Highland steers and her belly ripped like a rotten swede with the stroke of a great, curved horn. Father saw the happening from high in a park where the hay was cut, and they set the swathes in coles, and he swore out Damm’t to hell! and started to run, fleetly as was his way, down to the groaning shambles that was Nell. And as he ran he picked up a scythe-blade, and as he neared to Nell he unhooked the blade and cried Poor quean! and Nell groaned, groaning blood and sweating, and turning away her neck, and father thrust the scythe at her neck, sawing till she died.”

This is the story of Chris, a woman living the crofter’s life in rural Scotland in the early part of the twentieth century. It is the first part of a trilogy about her life and in it she grows from a crofter’s young daughter into a woman, falling in love, getting married, suffering assorted tragedies, with everything turning out more or less alright in the end.

There isn’t really much of a plot to speak of, but that hardly matters when the language is so spellbinding and evocative (if hardgoing, until you get into the swing of it). It is beautiful prose that recalls and mourns a lost Golden Age.

That said, as a novel, it didn’t really work for me. There were too many bits that didn’t ring true – a man speaking through a woman’s skin but without a woman’s knowledge.

The description of childbirth, for example, is what sticks in my mind and it is just wrong – it speaks of a sharp, clawing pain and uses heated swords and hooks as its metaphor. Wrong. And Mistress Melon – a companion cum housekeeper who stays with Chris after the death of her father leaves her alone and unchaperoned – simply disappears once Chris is married. Where did she go? Why? Then there is the family planning – Chris is keen to avoid the fate of her mother, worn down by numerous pregnancies, and the book is clear that there is family planning going on to space her family, presumably some version of the rhythm method: yet it is also clear that Chris has no knowledge about sex at all (a farmer’s daughter!) prior to her marriage and nobody to advise her on the subject. Doesn’t make sense! Moreover, although Chris is a woman and the protagonist, once she is grown up all her relationships with the other crofters seem to be with the male heads of households, rather than with their wives or daughters. Their wives are without exception presented in a bad, shrewish, gossipy light – yet is it so plausible that there would not be a truly kindly one among them, and that Chris would have no female friends at all?

In all, a nice book, just not very convincing. I shan’t be reading the remainder of this trilogy for all the lilting beauty of its language.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I got mine from the library.