Villages are full of tales: some are forgotten while others become a part of local folklore. But the fortunes of one West Country village are watched over and irreversibly etched into its history as an omniscient, somewhat crabby, presence keeps track of village life.
In the late sixties a Californian musician blows through Underhill where he writes a set of haunting folk songs that will earn him a group of obsessive fans and a cult following. Two decades later, a couple of teenagers disturb a body on the local golf course. In 2019, a pair of lodgers discover a one-eyed rag doll hidden in the walls of their crumbling and neglected home. Connections are forged and broken across generations, but only the landscape itself can link them together. A landscape threatened by property development and superfast train corridors and speckled by the pylons whose feet have been buried across the moor.
It feels like a cliché to say that when I pick up a novel I have certain expectations. Sometimes I love when a book delivers exactly what I want, other times I feel a tiny bit let down, because as reader I still want to be enchanted and challenged! I want a piece of writing that feels authentic and original. Villager by Tom Cox is all this and I felt eutrophic that I had found a piece of writing that felt exciting, different and best of imaginative. The writing is vivid and the characters felt alive, talking to me from the page in glorious detail.
Its greatest strength is the way the story and writing are rooted in everything that makes a community of characters feel substantial and real to the reader, shared experiences connecting their individual stories. They are formed by their mutual love, loss, nature and the land around them; an intrinsic connection to the voice of the landscape they live in.
There is a word in Welsh, ‘hiraeth’, which means many things in English, for some it is a longing for home, a time, or a person, even a longing for a place and time you have never been to beyond this plane of existence, yet inexplicitly feel a connection to in a deeply heartfelt way. For me Villager imbues that feeling, because the land within it felt familiar and yet not, a place I long to be in, but can’t go to because it exists beyond the world I live in, despite feeling all to real, almost fully formed, yet only existing in my minds eye. It felt so real that I felt I could walk into the world of the Villager and lay down on one of the characters itself, the land the village existed in. The hills and fields are used to powerful effect to imbue the story with a powerful sense of place. It feels pain, loss and longing, in the same way the humans living within it’s embrace do.
Splendid and deeply moving Villager by Tom Cox talks of our need to be rooted to a place, even if only fleetingly, even if we don’t understand why we are drawn to the land around us. It is a complex and beautifully written novel and in the days since I have finished, I still feel a longing to back with it’s pages.
About the author
Tom Cox lives in Devon. He is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling The Good, The Bad and The Furry and the William Hill Sports Book longlisted Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia. 21st-Century Yokel was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize, and the titular story of Help the Witch won a Shirley Jackson Award. @cox_tom