A doomed loved story played out against the planned destruction of an English rural community.
This first novel by British author Hall (her Booker-shortlisted The Electric Michelangelo was published in the US in 2005) uses a real episode—the building of the Haweswater dam in Westmorland in the 1930s—as the foundation for a two-pronged elemental tragedy. The book itself is an ode to the Lakeland in the UK, its fells, gray stone walls and people, and many of its pages are devoted to descriptions of place, season, occupation and weather—especially rain. Heartbreak hangs in the air from the moment the village of Mardale learns of its imminent annihilation, the result of the Manchester City Waterworks building a vast dam and drowning the whole valley. Devout Ella Lightburn and her stoic husband, World War I veteran Samuel, are typical of the stolid local tenant farmers shortly to be dispossessed of home and livelihood, although their children—headstrong, feline Jan and water-obsessed Isaac—have something otherworldly about them. Fiery Jan will fall intensely for the overseer of the dam project, Jack Liggett, “a man she is required to hate above all others.” When he falls and dies while hiking, with her left behind pregnant, she turns demented, tearing at herself in despair, eventually committing suicide with stolen explosives. Isaac grows up to be a diver and elects to drown in the reservoir. Hall paints her scenes in dark, symbolic, sometimes overwrought prose, straining for mythic overtones. Her desperate love story, occasionally reminiscent of Wuthering Heights, staggers under the tragic load heaped upon it; the sad dispersal of the village and its traditional way of life is more affecting.
A portentous debut, but this winner of the Commonwealth Best First Novel Award is proof of a literary talent with more to come.