The second novel from Betty Trask winning author James Clarke, Hollow in the Land, is perfectly titled – these interconnected narratives are deeply rooted in the Lancashire valley they inhabit. In unsparing prose, Clarke evokes the physical landscape through its interactions with its occupants, overlaid with the political, interpersonal, and philosophical landscapes these characters are subject to.
The novel opens with the tale of Harry, out searching for a co-worker’s sister’s dog before finding a network of caves disappearing into the limestone hillside. This interconnected set of stories, evoking the atmosphere of a community and a place that forms the characters of the people within each tale, unfolds much like the hill that our first protagonist discovers.
Each page of these tales is stalked by mortality. Characters dance as close as they dare to the fragile line between life and death in a range of dangerous endeavours, sometimes fully aware of their own recklessness and at others blissfully ignorant until events turn against them. And while the humans avoid and face their demises, the wildlife of the valley and the landscape itself come under similar threats as they are attacked, mined and removed. A sheep falls off a ledge and dies, and hunting bans don’t cover falcons perched ready for hounds to flush out the foxes. Heather is burned ready for grouse shoots, because this will make money, and it doesn’t matter that the rain will run straight down those hills and cause floods. Trees are felled illegally to make way to a back garden aviary, bringing down squirrel kits which are killed with a shovel. As one character tells us, ‘in a place like the valley … violence was as much of a normality as boredom, you had to focus the mind, appreciate the landscape, internalise.’
Like a chameleon, Clarke’s language initially seems as base and brutal as some of the characters it describes – yet as we delve further we realise it in fact mirrors the landscape. Yes, there is brutality, but also beauty, often rubbing alongside each other in startling proximity in ways that illuminate both. Illness, death and damage often come alongside food metaphors, a means of fuel but also pleasure and indulgence – one man smells of ‘the caramel of tobacco’, while another dies and slides ‘off [a] bench like scrambled egg off a plate.’ Several chapters have the feel of a fairytale brought heavily to ground, as children invited in by an old man tease each other ‘what’s he gonna do, stick us in a pie’. The spaces that might be filled with magic are instead filled with a savage kind of empathy for the difficulties of life in an isolated community, and understanding for the push-and-pull sense of belonging that it brings.
For a slim volume, Hollow in the Land introduces many characters, each drawn with compassion and a wealth of realism. It is easy to imagine the years’ of experience that colour the actions of each person, the biases and betrayals and yearnings that make them act as they do. Almost all have something to hide, a fear or a shame they avoid saying out loud. Were Clarke an author interested in explaining everything this could be a much longer book – but his willingness to trust the reader with the nuance of the story, to allow us to imagine beyond the ambiguous endings several chapters leave us with, deepens the story’s resonance significantly. This is not a book concerned with tidy endings. Instead, it tunnels into the fear of messy endings, and excavates that power. Through each character’s struggles to find their place in the complex world around them, to understand their own relationship to their valley, Clarke evokes a vivid patchwork of dynamic connections and complications that illuminate the realities of a rural life.
Hollow In The Land by James Clarke is published by Serpent's Tail