On the Black Hill (1982) – Bruce CHATWIN

You know it’s not a good day for your wallet when your place of employment has a 3 for 2 offer on Vintage Classics. Seriously, Random House must love me. Anyhoo, On the Black Hill stood out for one main reason – it has a kick-ass cover. That’s right, people, judging a book totally on its cover. Metaphors and idioms can go to hell. But, is the old saying right?

Benjamin and Lewis Jones are twins born at the turn of the twentieth century. They are born on a small farm in the Welsh countryside, to an English mother and Welsh father. As they grow up, they begin to realise that they are closer than usual twins, leading to some friction between the two. Benjamin wants to stay on the farm and look after his brother, while Lewis wants to leave the farm, get married, and lead a life. After Benjamin’s disasterous involvement with the First World War, the two remain on the farm for the rest of their lives, blissfully unaware of what else is going on.

I love the concept of two characters living out their lives through the twentieth century, seeing everythingas it passes them. But that’s really not what the novel is about. It’s surprisingly timeless, and I don’t mean that in a “classicly timeless” kind of way. I mean that time itself is mysteriously absent, and the passage of time in the narrative is strangely fractured. The first half of the novel deals with about 20-25 years of the twins’ lives, while the next half is dedicated to the other 50 years, much of which is skipped over in a few paragraphs. It makes for a strangely jumpy plot, and one that relies on us being interested in the minuitae of the lives of the people who live in the same village as the twins, and their descendents’ actions and so forth.

For an arguably character based novel, there’s surprisingly little development of the two main characters. Both Benjamin and Lewis remain fairly two dimensional and, apart from a few incidents that give us differences between the two, the twins themselves remain quite similar. There’s a lovely scene about two thirds of the way through the novel, where a German physchologist has come to visit the twins, and is doing a study on how twins live with each other. In her interview with Lewis, reveals that he wishes he could change it all, and actually leave his brother and the farm. But the time has passed, he is now well into his fifties, and cannot. Benjamin’s character pieces come far earlier in the novel, and his dealings with the army during the First World War are really quite well done. After that, though, he simply becomes the clingy brother, the one who loves his twin unconditionally forever. But apart from this, the novel is very plot driven. Not that this is a bad thing, but it doesn’t sit comfortably with what the book ostensibly wants to do – which, I assume, is to explore the close relationship of thes brothers. If plot, then, is what Chatwin wanted to focus on, I would have liked to see him place the twins in the face of more historical events, maybe live out the twentieth century through the events that defined what the century became.

So, it doesn’t really work as a character piece, and it doesn’t really work as plot. Does the cover lie, then? Not totally. The book, despite its shortcomings, is enjoyable enough. I certainly didn’t begrudge my time reading it. But, that was about it. It didn’t move me, it didn’t give me a eureka moment, and it didn’t exactly take off. It’s a very average novel – stuck between its ambition, and the failed way in which Chatwin tries to pull this ambition off.

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2 thoughts on “On the Black Hill (1982) – Bruce CHATWIN

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Have you read The Songlines, Matt? Should I turf it from my TBR?

    • matttodd says:

      I’ve not read it, so I’m not sure. It’s not that he’s a bad writer, just that this novel doesn’t gel. In fact, The Songlines might work because, as a travel narrative, plot is what makes it work. Also, I think Chatwin is more respected as a travel writer than as a novelist. So maybe not? I don’t know…

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