Hi all and welcome to December’s book club. This month our book is going to be On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. This novel was published in 1982 and it was the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for that year. In 1987 it was made into a film, directed by Andrew Grieve.
The novel’s setting is the border of Herefordshire, in England, and either Brecknockshire, or Radnorshire, in Wales (there are Black Hills near both). In the early pages we are told the border runs through the very farmhouse:
One of the windows looked out over the green fields of England: the other looked back intoWales…
Culturally the central characters are Welshmen, with the surname Jones.
The story is told through the technique of flashback, and portrays the lives of twin brothers, Lewis and Benjamin Jones, on their isolated upland farm called The Vision. The twins develop a bond that is shown throughout the novel as very special. Lewis is portrayed as the stronger or dominant twin, whereas Benjamin is the more intuitive one, both in appearance and in the tasks which he does around the house. He seems to be constantly drawn to his mother’s side while she is alive.
Lewis is the one who wants to break free but Benjamin is forced into the army at the time of the Great War. His efforts are frustrated by his family ties and the indefinable, unbreakable tie to the land. Chatwin also tells the reader of the brutality involved in farming at the time in this area. Amos, the father of the two twins, shows how his day-to-day job has brutalised his once caring and loving attitude, and we see this later in the novel when he hits his wife Mary on the temple with the book she is reading – Wuthering Heights. A jealous man, Amos attacks his wife with the very material that shows her intelligence; he feels threatened by this, feeling that the man is supposed to be the head of the family in all things, and he feels anger because of his limited education.
On the Black Hill is a novel which portrays themes such as unrequited love, sexual repression and confusion, social, religious and cultural repression, hate and the historic social values of that era, as is shown when Amos finds out that his daughter Rebecca has become pregnant by an Irishman. His religious fanaticism, social pressure, economic forces and an inability to express love results in him throwing her out of the household, and she is not mentioned in the novel again until the latter part.