You may know of Tom Cox through his books about his cats, the Sunday Times bestselling The Good, the Bad and the Furry. So in homage, the photo above shows Harry, our big soppy tabby cat who is always keen to read in bed with me.
Having read and very much enjoyed Tom Cox’s first foray into published fiction – the short story collection Help the Witch, I was really pleased to be able to read his first full length ‘novel’ Villager as part of its blog tour. It is a novel, but unconventional in its form. Following on from some of the formats used in Help the Witch, Cox has great fun by making his book into a story cycle, with most chapters having a new narrator and also jumping forwards and backwards in time between 1932 and 2099. Cox’s novel has a narrative arc to be pieced together, and there is the always there presence of the ‘tor,’ the hill in the West Country by which the village of Underhill nestles against its slopes.
I love story cycles – having read one absolute cracker a few weeks ago in Zoe Gilbert’s Mischief Acts, which tells the story of South London’s Great North Wood interlaced with the legends of Herne the Hunter set over seven centuries or so, cleverly moving up the timeline. The Great North Wood was ever-present in Gilbert’s stories, showing new sides to its character with each new tale. The character of the tor also immediately brought to mind Dead Papa Toothwort from Max Porter’s Lanny. However, Cox’s Tor is not mischievous like Porter’s DPT who is always keen to whip up some misrule.
Cox’s Tor doesn’t actively do much to thwart those who would desecrate its slopes, although it grumbles when electricity pylons dig their legs into its side. Mother nature is perfectly able to deal with miscreants, by deluging them with rain and a rising river, sucking things into the boggy parts and so on. Cox’s Tor is a fairly neutral presence that observes everything that’s going on around it, enjoying the weather and wildlife, but also having a good laugh at the antics of the humans that live in the village. Thus, the Tor gets several chapters to itself interspersed throughout the book to fill in some of the gaps left by the other narrators.
I mentioned a narrative arc that flows through the book, and that is the story of Richie ‘RJ’ McKendree, a young Californian musician who drifts to Underhill in the late 1960s. Inspired by a painting of the tor, and hearing another musican sing a local folk song, he covers the song and writes some of his own too which, befriended by Maddie and her mate Chickpea, who has a studio, get recorded – going on to become cult classics in the folk world. He comes and goes throughout the novel, and we first meet him on his return to the village nearly forty years later when two teenagers find him lying face down in the rough on the local golf course, before going back to 1968 when he arrives in a later chapter.
Each of the chapters with different narrators has a different style or voice, some are full of contemporary language, others more lyrical, a couple are outright comical. Indeed, in the Tor’s initial chapter, we are told all about the ‘Molesting Station’, which is the comedy running joke throughout the book – it’s a garage and MOT TESTING STATION, but a tree gets inbetween the two T’s make it look like an ‘L’. A pair of unfortunate typos on the local Indian restaurant menu also crop up more than once to give us a giggle. These all act as the comedy sidekick to the straight man’s folk song that also insinuates itself throughout the text.
I had to laugh too at the chapter ‘Message Board’ set in 2012 – which is the village’s chat forum. There is one character on it, Jennifer, who reminds me so much of someone who comments regularly on my town’s local blog…
Jennifer Cocker: Has anyone seen Roger and sheila recently? It might be worth going over to check on them.
Sheila Winfarthing: We are right here. Still walking and speaking in intelligible sentences without dribbling and making our own meals and everything. Some have described us as a miracle of modern science.
There are two chapters set in the future. The first in 2043 which tells of Bob and Sheila, trying to rebel against the onward march of technology (she is a traditional piano tuner – a dying art) to protect their way of life without ‘visors’ – mobile phones’ progeny. The other set in 2099, is told through a conversation between the great-granddaughter of one of the earlier characters and their AI. There are also stories told in diary format, and one which contains sections from a draft biography of RJ McKendree by an obsessive fan.
Cox is a record collector and was at one time a newspaper music critic and if you visit his website obviously knows his stuff (a superb article on record collecting on his website here). Through that, I was delighted to find that he has worked with an American musician to recreate the psychedelic folk of RJ McKendree’s songs and you can buy/download them here! This led me to wonder if the song that inspires McKendree was based on a real one – but by whom? Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee spring to mind immediately – but perhaps also Toni Arthur (who presented Playschool and made several very collectable folk albums)? Also I wondered if Oliver, referred to in the biographical sections who makes children’s TV shows in his shed is in homage to Oliver Postgate who created the Clangers. I think Cox had great fun playing around here – he mentions a kid’s series called Blackbird too (remember Magpie?)
All is interconnected in Underhill. By travelling through time, forwards and backwards, Cox gradually teases out all the generational relationships between the main characters. Some we meet in several stories at different ages, others just the once, but all the pieces do come together cleverly. I will need to revisit several sections to complete the jigsaw totally perhaps, but that’ll be a pleasure.
I’ll say it again – I love story cycles, and Villager is yet another superb one. It is by no means a pastoral idyll: there is drama of course, much humour too, but there is a gentleness to this novel that made me read it more slowly and more closely than I often do – which is a really good thing, giving me time to immerse myself in this village’s life and the hill that protects it. I really loved it.
Source: Review copy – Thank you. Tom Cox, Villager, Unbound hardback, 317 pages plus pledgers.
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