“Perhaps she was thinking that we’re only ever one layer away from our old selves, that our old selves might have been scraped or washed off or covered up, and a new self scribed on top. But how permanent is that?”
God’s Country, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce, is a disturbingly atmospheric story set in The Black Country, a place without borders marked on maps, yet has shaped generations of people raised within its haunting environs. The narrator – a fabulously unsettling voice – is constructing a tale based on their own knowledge of the characters and place, and from what they have been told by the protagonist, Alison. It is made clear that this source may not be entirely reliable.
“She’s slippery. Make no mistake about that.”
Opening in a traffic jam on the M5 – caused by a car fire where two people are reported to have died – Alison and her partner, Guy, are driving to his family’s farm. It is the first time he has returned since he left as a teenager. Alison is aware of aspects of his upbringing from what he has told her during their time together. Although she chose to join him on this journey – to attend a funeral – she is now tired and uncomfortable. There is a tetchiness between them, perhaps caused by the delay but possibly just how they are with each other. There is ambiguity throughout the tale as to who in the couple may be wielding the stronger hand.
“She’s frightened of him, of course. Normally. Who wouldn’t be?”
On arrival at the farm Alison meets Guy’s father, referred to by his surname, Flood. He is an angry, taciturn man, still resentful that his son chose to make a life elsewhere. There is also a sister, Donna, who has a baby she appears to neglect. The place is rundown and filthy – the farmhouse cold and damp, held up with scaffolding.
Alison observes details – the house and its surrounds, the people living in its shadow, conversations between family symptomatic of long held grievances. She glosses over certain aspects, citing tiredness or a headache – small erasures, perhaps to acquire a degree of control over what is being recounted. The reader does not require these details to understand there may be other versions.
“Everywhere here there is a sense of loss”
Alison is a masterful creation, a character portraying herself as struggling at times but clearly relishing being part of a drama in which she is pointedly side-lined by the family. The imagery is vivid, the tension palpable. The farm pulses with putrescence in myriad forms. Flood resents any suggestion that his traditional ways of living and working may be causing problems encountered.
“It is, she will say, a heavy coffin, this place.”
The plot, such as it is, retains shocking elements despite the obvious sign posting and build-up. That said, there is no spoon feeding of detail or wider reverberations. What comes across strongly is the legacy of upbringing, however far one manages to move on.
Is Alison a voyeur or a supportive partner? For a short book this packs a mighty and lingering punch. Highly recommended.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.