Rating 5 stars
Villager is Tom Cox’s first novel. I’m not going to call it a debut, because the author has a wealth of writing already in his back catalogue.
Cox is a writer of place. His books 21st Century Yokel and Ring the Hill explore landscape and folklore, mixed with Cox’s eye on the world and its margins. His short story collection Help the Witch marries that sense of place and love of folklore with fictions that open the door a crack to the other places hidden just behind what we experience as real.
His writing in Villager is a beautiful leap off from the coiled force present in some of the longer pieces in Help the Witch. There is folklore here, but also Bildungsroman, speculative fiction, diary writing and cultural reference points that span Mary Oliver, Mike Leigh, Oliver Postgate and Public Enemy. The story sprawls over time and place, slipping through the margins and brushing up against its own past and future. At its heart is a collection of songs written by an itinerant musician, and one ancient song in particular that echoes through the narrative.
Villager begins with a heavy day, the sort that seems to stretch out forever with no respite from the atmospheric pressure. It begins with a narrator who knows a lot, and who particularly knows about the moor and its villages. It begins on the moor above the village of Underhill.
The narrator is a slightly irascible force, firmly on the side of nature, but no hippie. Quite violent, in some respects, in how they’d deal with those who disrespect the planet and its inhabitants. Their discussion of pylons delighted me, even if I’m on the same side of the debate as Underhill postmaster Jim Swardesley in my appreciation of their existence. The narrator provides an at times whimsical overview of what’s going on in the village and on the moor, occasionally veering off at a tangent, digressing amusingly.
There’s a short list of ancient apple varieties in the first chapter that made me want to try them. The narrator describes them as “Apples of the insurrectionary underground … which would upset the apples in your local supermarket with their foul mouths …” I am a fan of apples and will always choose something with a bite to it over the sanitised, ruddy cheeked, oversized and trademarked sugar balls sold in supermarkets. Apples should be pocketable and eaten in season. Egremont Russet is my favourite, a proper one rather than one of the pumped up ones that briefly appeared in supermarkets a couple of years ago, but I’m also partial to a Cox’s Orange Pippin, a Kent, a William Crump and a Worcester Pearmain.
It might seem as though I’ve digressed there, but an undercurrent in Villager is the importance of the old ways and the dangers of messing with nature too much. Twenty years into our future, a character named Bob returns to his version of the old ways in a small but personal stance against the zeitgeist.
The narrative moves forwards and backwards across time, narrowing down onto specific moments, punctuated by the narrator’s overview of the village and the lives that trip over and embed into it. There are outsiders who rub up those who think they shouldn’t be there just by existing. There are newcomers who have lived in the village long enough to almost be local, certainly in their attitude towards the newcomers who come after them. There are anonymously quiet artists who hide their talent in attic rooms, because it’s the process not the product that matters. In many respects, Underhill is a microcosm of the wider place known as England.
One example of this is the story of Mark, who has the audacity to be mixed race and poor, as well as a better golfer than the solicitors, bank managers and retired headmasters who are members at the local golf club. His friend Paul is in awe of him. There’s an air of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green about Mark and Paul’s chapter, with its nostalgic look back on adolescence and lost friendship. One evening, heading back from the golf club on a route that avoided abuse from passing motorists, Mark confesses that the artificiality of maintaining a golf course has made him think more about the planet. Shortly after this conversation, they come across a supine man in the undergrowth, a Californian. As Paul goes to find help, Mark ends up in conversation with the Californian, cementing his thoughts on the planet. It ultimately leads him along a different path to Paul.
Their routes through life briefly cross again, and Paul experiences something of the way past lives seemingly cross into the present; not ghosts exactly, but emotions made corporeal, perhaps. The novel is full of time travel. People might leave physically, but they are never completely gone. Part of the trick to time travel is memory, that “sly magpie, a seasoned frequenter of thrift fairs and jumble sales, gradually sweeping the worthless tat aside to reveal the hidden treasure behind it.”
There’s a sensuality in Cox’s writing about nature that always transports me to the place he is describing, whatever form the writing takes. Here in his novel, that appreciation of the feel and form of nature is joined by the sensuality of human life, too. It’s in the way people are described, as well as in the human need for music, art and each other, physically. It’s something that is often missing from modern life, as we hurtle through it, too scared of slowing down to appreciate the experience, too scared of allowing ourselves to be open to different ways of being. As a new adult, around the age of Mark and Paul, in much the same era as them, I feel like I was more tuned in to what Cox depicts in these pages. The intervening thirty years or so has squashed the pleasure of existing somewhat. It’s no coincidence that technology has changed in the same period, making us simultaneously more connected and more disconnected. This novel talks about the tension between modern ideas of what it means to live and the ancient currents of life. It encourages us, to borrow a phrase from the last book I read, to smooth our borders.
The Californian encountered by Mark and Paul is a musician from the past. He first arrives in Underhill in 1968, although he was also previously in the area, if not the village, in 1950. He is drifting, a career on the cusp of success cast off behind him. He is modest, shy with his talent, and falls in with a farmer’s daughter who introduces him to an arts college crowd. Here he records an album of his songs, which he does nothing with, leaving it behind somewhere, much like his landlady with her paintings.
That leaving somehow ends up with a 7-inch single of the Californian’s take on a folk song he heard in a pub. The song, ‘Little Meg’, traverses the novel, a point of connection like the arts college where the Californian recorded it. Little Meg herself pops up on a village message board in 2012. She’s so old her surname is Beaker, which made me smile, but that’s by the bye. We’re talking about the song. The single, only released in Hungary, finds its way back to Underhill after fifty years away, where a divorced woman who works at the arts college connects a couple of dots. The single travels with the woman’s Hungarian lodger, Reka. Reka is a fascinating character seen through the woman’s eyes. There’s a moment in her story that I wanted to get beneath the surface of, when Reka’s boyfriend leaves the house bleeding from a scratch and all Reka will say is, “We were experimenting.”
In the crumbling house, the two women discover a one-eyed rag doll entombed in the wall of Reka’s bedroom. It’s not the only wall-entombed doll mentioned in the novel, but it is the one with the most impact. When I pledged for this book on Unbound, as a treat to myself, I chose the reward called Postcard from the West. This promised me a card from one of the characters. The postcard I received shows Dartmeet, possibly photographed in 1932, bearing a message from the Californian – “Watch out for dolls in the walls.” It’s a fair warning, given the events in the crumbling house. Things go from bad to worse once the doll is discovered. Including Reka’s enigmatic experimentation with (on?) her boyfriend.
Other loves are less unconventional. The love story between Sally and Bob is a beautifully nuanced piece of writing. It captures the defences that failed love erects and the way patience with others and not judging them out of hand on first impressions can quietly dismantle those defences. It also captures how the process of aging can change who we are and how we love, and what that does to the ones who love us.
Water rages and trickles and dampens its way through the story, a harbinger and a destroyer, bringing life but also threatening it. There’s a sense that the river that flows through Underhill is a gauge for how things are going. Some days it screams, others it purrs. Our bodies are about 60% water. It’s no wonder we feel the same.
Bob’s future life is bound up with the river, living as he does right next to it. His future is a projection of what might happen next for us, and it’s a regrettable future that humanity has allowed itself to be channelled towards. When trees, hedges, habitats and space are cleared across the river from Bob, to make way for holiday lodges, I couldn’t help but think about how it’s not just rural communities where this happens. Not so long ago, across the A-road from our house, there was a late 20th century factory building with mature cherry trees around its perimeter. The factory has been demolished and a mix of houses and apartments have gone up, with rooflines that echo that of the factory. Sadly, the trees have gone, too, ripped up while in full flower, and though the development plans showed replacement trees, not even a sapling has appeared so far. One less bit of greenery in an already pollution choked corridor running south from the city.
In Bob’s past life, he is friends with a music journalist called Martin, and Martin becomes obsessed with the Californian musician, making his way to Underhill in Bob’s wake to try to find out more. And so the wheel of the story turns again. The book Martin is writing about the Californian musician becomes a book within a book and is simultaneously some sort of alternate reality of my own childhood. A place of children’s television presenters who were also folk singers and makers of animated worlds in a shed at the back of beyond.
At the end of the novel, there’s a character who is trying to live a creative life unchained from the expectations of a record company or a fan base. She says of her ‘voice’ in her twenties, “It was sort of an amalgam of other voices, which everyone has to be at the start. All those great psychedelic bands: they started out by doing fairly straightforward cover versions, didn’t they. But you need your own voice, and I think that’s part of what makes something last, makes it something that is more than a song that people really like for six months then forget about forever, and you can’t force that voice.”
I was struck recently by something Jeanette Winterson said at an in conversation with a new writer, when they were talking about influences. It’s a similar thing. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist was that all writers have their own unique style in writing about the human condition, yet inevitably there are similarities to be found with others, because all writers are human, sharing common experiences, and are influenced by the surrounding culture that they absorb. It doesn’t mean they are all writing the same book.
Some readers, though, like to know what else a book is like, what the similarities might be to writers they already know when an author is unfamiliar to them. Going back to the air of David Mitchell I felt at the start of the novel, Villager is a book that fans of Mitchell will appreciate, in the way it crosses time and moves characters from the centre of their own story to the edges of other people’s narratives, and in the way music is so important to the story. I’d also draw similarities with the hard edged whimsy of Magnus Mills, where the conventions of life gloss over something dark and rugged, and we are encouraged to look at our own lives more forensically. The big difference between Cox and Mills, though, is that Mills writes about the entrapment of life, while Cox has his characters burst out of convention into the less stable freedom of doing their own thing.
Although I’ve compared it to the works of other writers, Villager is its own thing, and the writing is pure Cox. I hope lots of people choose to immerse themselves in its world. The layers in this novel captivated me. Not just the layers within its own story, but the layers across our reality, too. I found myself immersed in it, unwilling to stop reading and, when I did stop, emerging into my personal present as though from a dream. I love it when books grab me like that. When they feel real, but at the same time you know there’s something unreal about where they place you. It’s not that I want to live in Underhill, but I was very reluctant to leave it. There’s such richness to the plot in Villager, that I feel sure I’ll be back for another visit to focus on a different set of crannies and connections.
I’m ending with a long quote, because it sums up the novel perfectly.
This is what all the best art is: our repainting of the world, in our own individual language. And it’s when that language is least compromised and most individual that the art is less likely to drown, more set to surf successfully across time. But of course it’s also true – and here is the difficulty, and the cruelty – that some of the painting where the language is most truly and beautifully of ourselves, least swayed by a mission to please and be quickly understood, is the kind that can have a very difficult birth, feel like an unwanted, unloved child for a while. But then when, and if, it gets past that difficult stage, the dream life it lives – whether it is a painting, a record, a book, or some other form of creative endeavour – in the minds of those who adore it is astonishingly powerful, arguably no less real and vivid – maybe even more real and vivid – than the thing from the less abstract world that inspired it.