Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, upon its publication in 1982. The Independent calls the novel Chatwin’s ‘deepest and best book’ and, having read nothing of the author’s before, I felt it would be a good starting point. His travelogue, In Patagonia, has been hovering somewhere around the top of my to-read list for years now, and when I do finally pick it up, I am keen to see how it compares.
On the Black Hill is described as ‘an elegantly written tale’ of Benjamin and Lewis, identical twin brothers who grew up on a farm in rural Wales, and who never leave home. They ’till rough soil and sleep in the same bed, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century.’ I am always drawn to books set in rural locations, or isolated communities, and this novel ticks both boxes. The nature of the novel allows Chatwin to comment ‘movingly on the larger questions of human experience.’
On the Black Hill opens in a way which perfectly sets the scene. Chatwin writes: ‘For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as “The Vision”.’ Owned by their parents since 1899, it lies right on the line between England and Wales – so much so that the brothers can see the ‘green fields of England’ from one window, and the black hill of Wales from the other. Aside from one holiday at the seaside during their childhood, they have never left. They have seen the same view every day of their lives.
I found the prose throughout the novel rather powerful, and sometimes even haunting, in what it revealed. I admired the way in which Chatwin uses just a few details to say so much. Of the brothers’ bedroom, he says, for instance: ‘The room was always dark and smelled of lavender and mothballs.’ Descriptions of the landscape, too, are highly effective, and effortlessly create a panorama of the twins’ surroundings. Chatwin writes: ‘To the east was the River Wye, a silver ribbon snaking through water-meadows, and the whole countryside dotted with white or red-brick farmhouses. A thatched roof made a little patch of yellow in a foam of apple-blossom, and there were gloomy stands of conifers that shrouded the homes of the gentry.’
Whilst identical and difficult to tell apart in childhood, clear differences grow between the brothers; these, Chatwin captures throughout. He writes, for example, ‘Benjamin was shorter, pinker, neater and sharper-tongued.’ The relationship revealed between the twins is one of the great strengths of On the Black Hill; as adults, they ‘quarrelled without speaking’. As youngsters, they ‘persisted in sharing everything. They even split their sandwiches in two, and swapped the halves.’
When we first meet the twins, they are eighty. Chatwin moves back in time to encompass not just their childhoods, and their experiences of adulthood, but the relationship between their kind mother and hot-headed father, which soon spirals into violence. I found the characters to be rather fascinatingly drawn, and they each felt fleshed out in their unpredictability. A good example of this regards the twins’ parents. Before they married, their parents were both more exuberant, and more unsure, ‘bursting with things to say to each other. Both felt, at that moment, there was nothing more to say; that nothing would come of their meeting; that their two accents would never make one whole voice; and that they would both creep back to their shells – as if the flash of recognition in church were a trick of fate, or a temptation of the Devil to ruin them. They stammered on, and gradually their words spaced themselves into silence: their eyes did not meet as he edged out backwards and ran for the hill.’
Whilst this novel tends to be rather dark, there are some amusing moments here, which I’m not sure that I was quite expecting. I felt as though the entirety of the novel was well controlled, particularly with the way in which it moved back in history. It is also effectively rooted in the according time periods; Chatwin is very aware of details in this regard, and weaves small details in throughout. At the annual Flower Show in 1903, for instance, ‘… the pony shied at a dead hedgehog in the lane, and their mother won First Prize for runner beans.’
On the Black Hill is a thoughtful and readable novel, which spans two entire lives. Alongside the more serious elements of the plot, there are some really charming and meditative scenes to be found throughout. On the Black Hill is not hugely dramatic by any means, and is more quiet and contemplative than anything else. Through Chatwin’s words, I sank into rural Wales; I delighted in the not always idyllic countryside presented, and the very memorable people who called it home.