Out Backward, by Ross Raisin

Purchased at Chapters.ca

In addition to his attention-attracting name, 28-year-old Ross Raisin has an intriguing employment history in preparation for this, his first novel — waiter, dishwasher, barman. Certainly there are a lot of youngish people plying those trades with bigger ambitions (more for film than publishing, it must be said). Raisin, however, has managed not just to get published but to gain surprising recognition. Out Backward (published as God’s Own Country in the United Kingdom) won him the 2009 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for a number of other prizes. Raisin can now add an IMPAC Award short-listing to his one-book resume.

While I followed all that with some curiosity, it did take this last short-listing (and my IMPAC contest) to convince me to read the book. The reason is straightforward — any plot summary of the book leaves this reader (and I suspect many others) thinking “I’m pretty sure I’ve already read that book and don’t really want to read another version”.

So let’s get the plot out of the way. Nineteen-year-old Sam Marsdyke lives with his abusive father (he calls his son “Nimrod”) and repressed mother on a sheep farm in the Yorkshire Moors. Sam is not quite all there — that may be a product of an isolated upbringing or illustrate far more serious concerns. He was kicked out of school a few years ago, the result of an incident that may have been innocent sex play or perhaps the start of attempted rape. As the book opens, a family of “towns” has moved up from London to take up country life in the next door farm house. They have a 15-year-old daughter and Sam becomes obsessed. Complications (and as the summary suggests they are predictable) ensue. The obsession has ominous overtones which prove to be true.

Have you read or heard about a similar book? From Canada, Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog comes to mind. The previous post on this blog is a Dutch version — Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin. Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God adds an American book to the list. Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory would be another UK example. And those are all contemporary — I won’t even get started on some of the classical books built around the same premise.

So the strength of the book is obviously not the plot, but that is hardly unprecedented. After all, aren’t all of Jane Austen’s novels variations on the same plot? In fact, the list probably suggests it is a structure that has served as a platform for a number of very good authors to explore some other strengths — which I am happy to report is exactly what this book does.

The book is all told in Sam’s voice and opens with him hidden behind a rock field wall, observing a group of “ramblers” from town who set up for their mid-day picnic in the next field:

A middle of the way down the field and they stopped. They parked down in a circle like they fancied a campfire but instead they whipped out foil parcels and a Thermos and started blathering.

I’ve got ham. Who wants ham?

I’ll have ham.

Oh, wait a moment. Pink Hat inspected the sarnies. We have a choice — ham and tomato, or ham and Red Leicester?

He gave them each a parcel, then stood up the Thermos in the middle of the circle.

Nasty old day still, he said. Wish it would perk up a little.

Doesn’t look too promising, though, said one of the females.

I teased a small stone out the wall and plastered it in sheep shit.

That is such nice ham.

Isn’t it? Tesco, you know.

Crack. I hit the Thermos bang centre, tea and shit splashing up the fog.

That excerpt illustrates a number of the characteristics of the book. Raisin has an ear for dialect, slang and language which he knows how to turn into prose. The conflict between townies invading and demeaning farmers will be a constant sub-theme in the book. And, in addition to illustrating a capricious violent streak in the narrator, we get some of the first hints about his credibility or lack thereof.

There is a discipline to both Raisin’s control of his story and his language that is unusual in a first novel. He introduces all of his important tangential themes early in the book and then carefully keeps paying attention to them (without introducing annoying distractions) as the novels proceeds. It is those themes and the way that Raisin weaves them together which make this novel a success. Here is another example of the set-up, when the new neighbors from town arrive next door:

And look who was first out the van. The girl. Young. Fifteen maybe. The others got out — mum, dad, kid brother, two furniture lugs — and they went at clearing the van, mum and dad pointing commands, the fridge, yes, that goes indoors, as if they feared the lugger-buggers might set it in the vegetable plot, and the boy skittering about, unsure, like a louse on the flat of your hand. The girl got stuck in, mind, bounding back to the van after each round, her ponytail flop, flop on her shoulders.

While Sam is a perceptive observer of selected parts of the world around him (and completely oblivious to others), he is a reluctant participant — or rather an incomplete one. He is good around the farm, but not much good at anything else. He is equally good at observing the conflict between farmers and townies, but most of that is a reflection of the opinions of Father, a man whom he does not like at all but who is still his major influence. Raisin plays that particular theme in a consistent satire that continues to be effective as the book progresses.

Unfortunately, this approach means that there is not a lot of character development in the book — it is a novel of observation, rather than development. The structure certainly ends up developing the character of Sam but every other human in the book is presented only through his eyes and to that end the reader is expected to evaluate just how perceptive his observations are. Because the author does such a good job of making sure that he keeps all those tangential themes active and balanced, that process is not nearly as difficult as it might seem. The action proceeds pretty much as expected but the interesting part of the book is the way those themes are presented for consideration and contemplation at each stage in the plot.

Raisin’s success in achieving that, I would suggest, is reflected in the different UK and North American titles of the book. They would seem to reflect two very different ideas that could hardly be contained in the same book — indeed they are different and indeed they both are drawn directly from the book. The UK one comes from a statement the girl’s father makes to her mother on the day of their arrival: “Don’t you see, he tells her, I told you it would be wonderful, it’s God’s own country here”. The North American title comes from a statement from Sam’s mother to her son: “Janet says I’m not to blame myself. I couldn’t have done different. You must’ve come out backward.” (For those unfamiliar with sheep farming, that’s the greatest challenge the farmer faces during lambing season.) Each title is equally valid, although I am biased toward the North American one, which I understand was Raisin’s original title.

That, coupled with Raisin’s adept use of his Yorkshire dialect, makes Out Backward a highly readable book. I read the 211 pages in a single day — I won’t call it a page-turner but it does proceed at a consistent pace and rarely gets side-tracked for even a paragraph. And that, I fear, may also prove to be its greatest weakness. As involving as the story was in the read, I have a concern about just how much of it I will remember down the road in a few months. I promise to check back then with an edit to report on how this very impressive first novel aged.

(For another review of this book, check out John Self at the Asylum.)

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8 Responses to “Out Backward, by Ross Raisin”

  1. Anna van Gelderen Says:

    I bought this book quite by chance: I inadvertently got stranded at Johannesburg airport on my way from Namibia to Amsterdam and the only decent book in the bookshop there seemed to be this one. I read it soon after I got home, had to get used to Sam’s voice at first, but then started to like it more and more. I loved Raisin’s original play with dialect, the black humor and the uncertainty about Sam’s credibility (or lack thereof, as you so aptly call it). Sam is obviously disturbed, but Raisin also managed to make me sympathize with him to a large extent. I read this book in August and still remember it surprisingly vividly, which is good, don’t you think?

    PS I agree that the American title seems much more fitting.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anna: You have described an important point that I did not want to dwell on in my review — Raisin’s ability to portray Sam in a way that we sympathize with him, even when there is a strong indication that that sympathy may be ill-placed. That ambivalence about him is part of what makes the other themes so strong. I wasn’t sure it would land that way with every reader; I’m glad that we both had the same response.

    And I am pleased to read that you remember it vividly some months later. I’m hoping it will be the same with me.

  3. Isabel Says:

    For a first book, it doesn’t seem to be too bad.

    Maybe he just needs to live a bit more. How much time has he spent interacting with people as opposed to being on the internet?

    The younger people seem to be more isolated now.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: It was a very enjoyable read. I would say there is every reason to expect more, but this book is an excellent start.

  5. John Self Says:

    It does seem that there is a rich seam of books about ‘troubled’ youths causing violent mayhem with the locals. When I wrote about Raisin’s novel, someone pointed out that the premise was similar to Niall Griffiths’ Sheepshagger, and someone else mentioned William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth. I have the latter, reissued recently as part of Penguin UK’s extravagant Decades series to celebrate its 75th anniversary, so I may read it soon and see how it compares.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice opening to the review Kevin, as I must admit I’ve read that premise more than once.

    As an aside, apparently an increasing cause of yougn people moving away from the countryside in the UK is lack of internet access, it leads to them feeling isolated.

    I wasn’t so sure about the second quote. Lugger-bugger, ponytail going flip, flop, the skittering louse. It all felt a bit, well, novelistic. I was particularly unpersuaded by lugger-bugger, which seems obviously made up (though it may not be, for the curious there’s a lexicon of Raisinian here: http://www.edrants.com/a-supplemental-lexicon-to-ross-raisins-fiction/).

    Still, I may check it out. I’ll have a read of Trevor’s review too which I may have missed, but even with your recommendation the tale seems just perhaps a touch too familiar territory.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John, Max: I suspect the book is doing a lot better with prize juries than it is with the buying public. When I checked online after the IMPAC list was announced, it was being remaindered at Chapters for $5 — a U.S. paperback already being remaindered when the original appeared in the UK only two years ago is a sign that nobody is buying the book. I have to think the formulaic nature of the plot has something to do with this, since you only discover what is good about the book in the process of reading it. I also think jacket descriptions probably lead juries to approach it with low expectations and there is a level of surprise about how good it is once they get into the book.

    As for Raisin’s language, I’ve read in discussions elsewhere complaining that his MFA training shows up in some overwriting. I didn’t find that — certainly Sam uses some clunkers (lugger-buggers is a good example), but then he is a very clunky character. I read his “dialect” as personal rather than an attempt to capture some perfect regional variation. (Incidentally the link you posted just takes me to a 2004 home page that doesn’t really attract me to explore further). I also understand his Yorkshire Moor geography is somewhat wonky — again, I wouldn’t know and besides I was reading a work of fiction.

    Despite all this, I wouldn’t call it a must-read book. If you choose to pick it up (or have to read it as prize juries do) it has much to recommend it. Definitely worth buying if you are shopping an airport bookstore for a book for the flight. But if your reading agenda is crowded, you can probably give it a miss.

  8. John Self Says:

    I agree Kevin. I liked the book and gave it a favourable write-up, but I can’t remember much about it even now, and don’t have any desire to revisit it in the future. But Raisin is a writer to watch, for sure.

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