Ross Raisin's debut novel, God's Own Country, is about a troubled young Yorkshire farmer who develops a friendship with a teenage girl and runs away with her. It turns the notion of pastoral literature on its head, and is a compelling mix of adventure, Gothic romance and black comedy. Mostly, it is a very disturbing and unsettling read.
No ordinary man
The story is narrated by 19-year-old Sam Marsdyke, who lives on the family farm with his mum and dad. From the outset, we know that Sam is not an ordinary young man — he delights in throwing stones at ramblers, whom he describes as "daft sods". Later, we learn that he despises "towns", those people who move from the city to live in rural Yorkshire, because "they couldn't give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out of the bedroom window".
There are other, darker, elements to his character, which the reader discovers the further you get into the novel (I won't mention them here, to prevent spoiling the plot, suffice to say they are quite shocking). And as the narrative slowly unfolds, so, too, does Sam's hold on reality.
And while there's a menacing undertone to this book, Sam is sympathetically drawn. He has a deep love of the countryside (the descriptions of the moors are particularly vivid) and a love and respect for the livestock he tends. He has an especially tender relationship with a puppy, whom he dotes on.
The story is not without humour. And because it is written in a regional dialect, it ties the narrative to a specific place and imbues it with a real sense of authenticity. The use of language is inventive — a Labrador jumps up onto a gate and "jowled the top of it with drool", a breeze is "chirring through the trees", there's a "hubbleshoo of small boys spewing out the bus" — and Raisin effortlessly brings scenes to life in gorgeously crafted sentences, such as this one:
Father took hold the wire and wrenched it up. A shimmer of raindrops spring out, arching a rainbow an instant, till they fell to the sod and he began pulling the wire off his post with his hands.
God's Own Country — the title refers to the beauty of the North York Moors — is best appreciated when read in large chunks, as opposed to a chapter here and a chapter there. It takes a good while for any narrative tension to build, but the patient reader is amply rewarded when Sam goes on the run with the teenage girl who has moved in next door. But the story does get quite confusing towards the end, a reflection of the state of Sam's mind at the time.
It reminded me very much of Patrick McCabe's Butcher Boy and even MJ Hyland's This is How, both of which are far stronger (and more disturbing) novels featuring deeply troubled male narrators, but as a first-time novelist it marks Raisin as an exciting new talent.
God's Own Country won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2009, The Guildford Book Festival First Novel Award in 2008 and a Betty Trask Award in 2008. It was shortlisted for a host of other awards, including The Guardian First Book Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
This book was chosen by Claire for our Riverside Readers book group. It generated quite an interesting discussion — about everything from mental health to living your life according to the label you have been assigned by others — so if you are in a book group looking for something to generate debate, do consider reading this one.