Book Review: The Mating Habits of Stags

“I love it up here, she said. It’s so wild.
Wild?
A-huh.
There’s nowt wild about it. It’s all man-made.
But it’s nature, you know.
It’s a desert. These hills are nowt but a sheep ranch.”

“These hills should be covered in forest.
She scanned the landscape. I didn’t realise.
Pricks that own the land, swiddening the moor, burning heather off to create new shoots for grouse to feed on. Reason yon dale floods. Peat acts like a sponge but when they burn it, they knacker it. All that damage to folks’ homes and businesses just so some posh southern twats can come up here once a year and shoot some game.”

The Mating Habits of Stags, by Ray Robinson, is set in Yorkshire where the protagonist, septuagenarian Jake Eisner, is on the run from both the police and the son of Charles Monroe – an elderly man he has recently murdered. After a childhood marked by poverty, Jake spent most of his life as a farmhand. He knows the land and how to survive.

Jake is a widower, his beloved wife, Edith, having died a year ago. They raised a son, William, but he too is dead. Jake’s friend, Sheila, cannot understand why Jake would have killed a wealthy landowner who was already in poor health and living in a care home. She does not know their shared history. Jake has talked little about his past. What Sheila does know of him she has gleaned from having been born and raised in the same locality. She would have liked to get to know him better but he often rebuffed her attempts to spend more time together.

The timeline of the story jumps back and forth giving the reader glimpses of lives marked by actions and their consequences – the beauty and pain of living. It is a tale of: desire, grief, love, revenge.

Jake makes his way across woods and moorland, camping out or finding occasional shelter in farms he once worked at. He moves on regularly to evade capture. With winter closing in he turns to those he hopes might offer assistance. He learns that he has become prey.

“Fox hunters: terrier men on quads, pony clubbers in hacking jackets, car horns and bugle calls – those privileged hooligans.”

Sheila is perplexed by Jake’s actions but is distracted by her own worries about her daughter and grandson. Feeling used and taken for granted, she has recently moved away from her home town. When Jake turns up on her doorstep she must make a decision. It is one she will come to regret.

The narrative offers a no nonsense glimpse into the lives of working class families in an area where what wealth exists is in the hands of those who made it from others’ hard graft.

“He eyed the north face of the magnificent Monroe Hall. Such places sickened him with what they represented: generations of downtrodden poor in the factories and mill-towns. Claggy-arsed industry, scab of the North Country.”

Sheila decries her daughter’s work ethic and choice of partners but recognises that her own history is chequered. She has a difficult relationship with her mother. She still has feelings for her second ex-husband – and also for Jake.

The glorious use of language provides a vivid evocation of the landscape.

“A swap of wind scurries through the abandoned mill, a wind made of leaf mould and rusted rabbit wire.”

“The plop and patter of rainwater, a liquid metronome”

The dark beauty of the place and the people who live there are rendered in unsentimental yet emotive detail. As the reasons for Jake’s behaviour are teased out, along with their repercussions, his journey and its outcome inexorably alter Sheila’s future. And yet there is much, it seems, that cannot be changed.

The sparse yet salient prose drops a depth charge into the reader’s sensory responses, the story offering so much more than the actions portrayed. The characters’ flaws are the cracks that enable a flow of empathy and understanding. This is an uncompromising depiction of northern England that I unreservedly recommend.

The Mating Habits of Stags is published by Lightning Books. 

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