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The Borrowed Hills by Scott Preston review – a blistering tale of land and violence

The Borrowed Hills by Scott Preston review – a blistering tale of land and violence

In 2015 James Rebanks published the bestselling The Shepherd’s Life, a seasonal account of a year in the life of a small-scale sheep farmer in Cumbria. He wanted, he said, to put “the working-class nobodies – our people – back into the books”. In one of the most unforgettable sections, he recalls the epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease that ravaged the UK in 2001. A “contiguous cull” required all sheep within three kilometres of a known outbreak to be slaughtered. Rebanks watched as the animals he had bred and raised were shot, one after the other. “When the last wagon had gone, I went into the barn … sat down in the shadows, held my head in my hands and sobbed.”

Foot-and-mouth devastated Cumbria, wiping out the livestock and livelihoods of nearly 900 farms. That devastation sits at the heart of The Borrowed Hills, Scott Preston’s blistering debut novel. Preston was a boy when the epidemic hit. Like Rebanks, he grew up in the Lake District, where his father was a dry stone waller. He too was frustrated that nothing he read told the story of the land and the people he grew up with in a way he recognised. The Borrowed Hills is an explosive bid to right that wrong.

Steve Elliman is the son of a tenant farmer in a fictional fold of the fells called Curdale Valley. When his father falls ill he chucks in his job as a lorry driver and goes home to help. The smallholding is “scarce a thumbprint” on the valley and rapidly falling into disrepair. Their flock of just 200 sheep live wild on the open fells 1,000 feet up, “higher than where the flycatchers and doves roosted in cragfolds, and higher than where falcons nested watching their dinner below”. When rumours of foot-and-mouth start to spread, Steve isolates the sheep but he cannot save them. The sickness has taken hold at a neighbouring farm and orders are clear. Every animal must be eliminated.

The massacre that follows is unsparing in its matter-of-fact violence. Steve’s first-person narrative is written in his distinctive Cumbrian voice, a vernacular stripped to its bones that encompasses stark prose and sudden startling flashes of poetry. Rifle muzzles are “placed between [the sheep’s] ears and the bullets lined along their backs so each bang stayed inside their heads”. The sheep panic. The squaddies sent to dispatch them panic in their turn. The result is half Tarantino and half pitch-black northern realism, an absurdist horror that slides under the skin and lodges deep.

Later Steve fetches up on his neighbour William Herne’s farm, where the outbreak is rumoured to have started. The sheep that William tried to hide out in the fells have been seen from a police helicopter and gunned down from the sky. The fires incinerating the dead animals burn day and night for a week. “We had burned through everything, even what we’d no right to, rubbed out the stars and hid the moon, and if the night sky wasn’t already black we’d have had a good go at making it.” When the job is finished Steve leaves the valley and goes back to driving lorries, but something in him has changed. He can’t stay away. When he finally returns, William has a plan to get back on his feet, a plan that will push both men into a spiralling nightmare of violence and bloodshed.

Despite the wild beauty of the landscape, there is something claustrophobic about Preston’s novel: the tyranny of a place that demands relentless back-breaking labour and will never pay back what is given. Steve and William’s increasingly feverish venture is not a quest for new frontiers but a frantic struggle to claw back a life that was already falling apart. “That’s what I like about you farm lads,” a man tells Steve. “Know what it is to raise something to be killed.” But like the slaughter of foot-and-mouth, the violence that enmeshes the two men is not heroic. It is ugly and senseless and it destroys lives. It offers no redemption. The best one can hope for is the restoration of a precarious equilibrium, a return to the harsh hardscrabble of before.

This is a sucker-punch of a novel, a viscerally vivid portrait of desperation, edged with knife-sharp black humour and shot through with moments of startling beauty, but there is little hope in it. Angry as it was, Rebanks’s book was a love letter to Cumbria. The connection to the land goes just as deep here, but, bound to a place that demands so much in return for so little, it is a more dysfunctional relationship.

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Source: theguardian.com