God's Own Country (2008) by Ross Raisin
Sometimes, when I read a really good book, the subsequent review practically writes itself. I normally start the first draft of a review when I'm halfway through a book; occasionally even earlier. If I absolutely LOVED the book, you'd think this would be easier. Yet it's been days since I finished God's Own Country and I haven't yet written a word about it. Why the delay? In part, it could be because I just know it's going to be difficult to do this book justice. My initial response upon finishing it was to write: 'Wow, just wow', and I'm tempted to leave it at that. But if I'm to convince others it's worth reading, I suppose I have to explain why it wowed me in a little more detail, so I will give it my best shot.
The story is narrated in North Yorkshire dialect by Sam Marsdyke, a 19-year-old farmer's son. Having been expelled from school several years before, he has withdrawn into a world of his own making; he spends his days working on the farm with his brutal father, walking the wild moors with his sheepdog, and terrorising unsuspecting ramblers and 'towns' (Sam's word for the rich families who are slowly but surely buying up the surrounding farms). With no friends or even acquaintances of his own age, Sam lavishes attention on the puppies and lambs at the farm, and frequently uses his vivid imagination to conjure up interaction between the people, and even the animals, around him. When a new family - well-off 'towns' from London - move into the farm next door, Sam develops something of a fixation with their young daughter (whose name is Jo, although she is almost always referred to as 'the girl' by Sam - a telling detail, as it turns out). The plot is woven around Sam's increasing sense of isolation and, concurrently, his escalating obsession with the girl. Without giving too much away, it all builds - subtly and with a heavy dose of black humour - to a startling and disturbing climax.
Rarely has a narrative voice been so convincing, so powerful, so ferociously REAL. At points during the time I spent reading this book, I found myself actually thinking in Sam's voice, which I don't think has ever happened before. It's revealed early on that Sam's expulsion from school was due to an accusation of rape, but rather than turning him into a repulsive character, Ross Raisin carefully dances around the issue - it isn't even that you necessarily believe Sam is innocent, but rather that he is painted as such a believable, complex character that it is impossible not to be drawn into his lonely world. He is often very funny and can be incredibly beguiling. His observations are twisted cleverly and are sometimes shocking; for example, he turns a description of two sheep mating into what seems to be an admission of guilt about the rape incident, and the wordplay here is so beautifully done that I had to read it several times and turn it over in my mind to grasp the real meaning. Sam is capable of astonishing cruelty, but shows affection and empathy towards the animals he cares for; he is clearly obsessive, but his fantasies about the girl are, more often than not, innocent and even quite sweet. In fact, it's Jo who initially appears to be the more manipulative and conniving of the two. Raisin encourages the reader to be on Sam's side, to perceive him as well-meaning even as his behaviour becomes ever more menacing and out of touch with reality.
There are many dramatic events in this story - particularly towards the end, which spirals into surreal confusion to the point that what appears to be a nightmare segues into the book's climax, reflecting Sam's damaged mental state. But really, it's all about Sam as a character, and the power of his unreliable narration. You probably know how much I like my bleak, black books, and God's Own Country certainly won't have the same appeal for every reader; it's intensely disturbing in parts. The idiomatic language might be off-putting to some, too. But if you can stomach all the slang and the dark turns the plot takes, it's breathtaking; the way the book draws you in until you're too rapt to look away seems to mirror Jo's involvement with Sam. Alongside Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (a worthwhile comparison since, despite the very different settings and details, the two books share many traits) this masterful debut is one of the best books I've read all year.