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.)