Spanning 70 years on a remote hill farm in the lost Welsh county of Radnorshire, Addlands is a quiet rural novel of enormous power. Very little happens bar births, deaths and the slow accumulation of scars and experience — life, then, as it happens to all of us — but told from a perspective that’s hard to acquire when we consider our own messy, close-up histories. The result is a haunting study of change and continuity.
The book opens in 1941, when Etty, the new young wife of a deeply religious and superstitious sheep farmer named Idris Hamer, gives birth at home to the child she conceived out of wedlock. Oliver, strong and swarthy, is clearly not Idris’s son; when, some years later, Etty miscarries Idris’s baby in a blizzard, it is in part due to Olly’s childish stubbornness in undertaking the rescue of some of the flock. In this way are the later taunts of “cuckoo” well earned.
Oliver becomes a brawler, famed for miles around: the kind of man around whom local legends gather. Eventually he has a child and strikes out for himself, but life away from the farm proves impossible — he is too deeply rooted to the land. His son, Cefin, grows up away from the valley, and we wait to discover whether he will find a way to put down roots of his own, despite the weight of nine generations of Hamers there.
Meanwhile, the distant world turns: television comes to the valley, and second-homers; we watch the slow dissolution of a tiny chapel to a ruin in the 1980s, only to be reborn as a desirable residential property in 2011. On the Hamer’s farm, the Funnon, there are slow changes, too: wrapped silage bales replace haymaking; eventually, foot-and-mouth disease arrives. Tom Bullough’s vision of the Edw Valley, though, is steeped in history, from the holy spring for which the farm is named to the record of a hard winter left in the rabbit-nibbled bark of the trees in Pentre Wood, to the mysterious stone carved with Latin and Ogham characters that Idris discovers up on Llanbedr Hill.
Bullough has written about Radnorshire before, in his 2007 novel The Claude Glass, shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year; it also happens to be the place where he spent much of his childhood. No surprise, then, that he knows it well; nevertheless, the freight of detail that Bullough has amassed in order to ground Addlands in place is impressive. Not only does he grant the farms, hills and lanes their names, but also the fields; there are some lovely old dialect terms (he provides a glossary on his website), and beautifully precise natural and agricultural details abound. These observations are never overworked — in some cases they are made almost in passing — but together they create a canvas that feels rewardingly concrete yet drenched in myth and meaning, as the real landscapes we all live among are.
The glancing nature of these observations stems from the way in which Addlands all but eschews a separate narrative voice, mentioning things only as they are observed by the book’s characters, to whom most things are deeply familiar and so require little description or comment. The penalty for this style is a slight loss of clarity and significance; at times it isn’t clear what has happened, where, or to whom. I found myself reading and rereading certain sections, trying to sift clues from otherwise oblique references to events; fortunately, this is a novel that easily repays the effort.
Although in some ways a story of three generations of men, it is not Idris, Oliver or Cefin who give this book its heart but Etty, whom we first meet with “round, girl’s cheeks” and at last see bent and tiny with age. It is she, an incomer to the valley, who learns to manage the farm; she is both implacable and unstinting, testament to the hidden work that women do and always have done in making sure that farms, and families, survive.
“Sometimes I think Addlands is a book about feminism,” writes Bullough on his website. “Sometimes I think it’s about the sacred in the landscape, about what is left once the church and the chapel have gone.” It’s both those things, and something more: a quiet hymn to place, an exploration of the way in which our relationship to it makes us who we are.
Addlands, by Tom Bullough, Granta, RRP£14.99, 304 pages
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘At Hawthorn Time’ (Bloomsbury)