Archive for March, 2009

Chocolate eggs and a Raisin

I knew Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country was going to be controversial as soon as I’d read the first page! In fact, I was in the middle of reading it when we held the February book group and the curl of my lip when I passed it round may have indicated what I felt about it. But this is the Berwick Book group and you can never expect a total consensus.

It’s had an astonishing amount of hype and it’s won  awards that would surpass expectations for a first novel, so I realised I was going to have to justify my dissastisfaction with the book. For me, the plot was terribly predictable and the unreliable narrator (a device which I love, when it’s done well) also seemed too cliched and obvious. I wasn’t alone in this opinion  – but several people did enjoy it and for them  the rather thin plot didn’t matter. They enjoyed the  portrait of Sam Marsdyke, as well as the issues the book raised about how Sam had clearly been failed at every step of his life, by his parents, the school system, psychologists and eventually the penal system.

In an interview which a number of us had found, Ross Raisin said he wanted to write about two things he “knew nothing about:” farming and mental illness. This led us down the path of a fascinating discussion on the differences between a psychopathic personality (which we felt Sam had) and the definition of mental illness, which didn’t seem to apply to Sam.  We discussed the ambiguity of elements of the plot – because we only heard events through Sam’s voice, some things were left to interpretation and we couldn’t agree on what had actually happened, which is probably what the author intended.

Some enjoyed the language. It was undoubtedly quite a feat to write this entire book in the Yorkshie dialect. This was something I really struggled with, however – not so much the Yorkshire or made-up words (nimrods, blutherment, powfagged, etc) because they seemed easy to interpret, but the construction of the sentences. I kept having to re-read them, which I found frustrating! But one reader who worked in Yorkshire for many years fell comfortably back into the speech pattern and enjoyed it.  Others also found the acerbic portrayal of the townies and the ramblers very funny.

But one of the most telling comments of the evening came from the person who said it read like the kind of novel which would come out of an MA Creative Writing course. Which indeed it did!

And we discussed the ways that some of these ideas (unreliable narrators, pyschopathic personalities) had been done by other writers – often better. One reader recommended Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby and another Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker. Some of us also were reminded by Raisin’s book of John Fowles’ The Collector. (This is something I really enjoy about the group. They’re always up for a literary session of “If you liked that, you’ll love this!”).

Hexham is a bit of a trek from Berwick, but if anyone’s interested, Ross Raisin is appearing at the Hexham Book festival on April 30th. He’ll be with Richard Milward, the young author from Guisborough whose first novel Apples has been highly praised, and they’ll be talking to New Writing North’s director Claire Malcolm.  Patrick Gale (Rough Music, among others) and Philip Hensher (The Northern Clemency) will be doing the same on Saturday 2nd May. Details can be found on are .

If you’re quick to press the Listen Again button, you can hear a discussion about our last book, Things Fall Apart, on BBC R4’s A Good Read, with Sue MacGregor.

Finally – some mutterings about the fact that we haven’t finalised the next few books. Will do as soon as possible – honestly. Looking forward to next month’s group when we’ll be discussing Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.

Oh – PS.  How was the spurious mention of chocolate eggs justified? Lovely Kim from Doolally’s wowed us with her Easter crispie-and mini-eggs cakes.  If there’s no other reason to go to the group….!

Next meeting: Tuesday 28th April, 6.30pm. Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick upon Tweed. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

March 2009
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