‘Haweswater’ by Sarah Hall

haweswaterI bought this book just before we went on holiday to the Lake District, because it happens to be set in… the Lake District! There’s a lovely sepia photo of a lakeland scene on the cover, and the story it tells is one of human drama and tragedy in the 1930s, when the Manchester City Waterworks bought and flooded an entire lakeland valley, Mardale, to create a massive reservoir for their city. This forced many farming families off their own land and drowned an entire village which had existed for many hundreds of years. ‘Haweswater’ concentrates on one particular family in the valley, the Lightburns – farmer Sam, Ella his wife, and their children Janet and Isaac. Janet is the book’s main protagonist, who grows up to be a bit of a ‘wild child’ and has a stormy relationship with Jack, the man sent by the MCW to break the news to the local community.

The book has already won at least one international award, and every last review quoted on the cover uses words like ‘striking’ and ‘brilliant’ and ‘original’. Which is all true – it is brilliant and it’s certainly original. The trouble is, it’s also difficult, uncomfortable writing that really isn’t very likeable. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t need a book to be the written equivalent of Mantovani in order to enjoy it. In fact, I quite like a challenge. But there are times when that challenge feels as if it’s an end in its own right and that’s very much the case here.

The narrative has no flow to it, either in terms of chronology or language. The early part of the book skips about from one disconnected scene to another, changing characters, changing point of view, and committing the supposedly cardinal sin of starting with the main character’s birth. Yes, it builds back story, but it’s also something of a wade since the real action doesn’t start until about a third of the way through. On top of that, whole sections are written in the style of a report. One chapter begins, “It was customary for the members of the Mardale Women’s Institute to meet in each other’s homes every other week…” and rather than working information into the narrative, gives a potted history of the local WI in a couple of paragraphs of what anyone else would call an ‘info dump’. If that’s not ‘tell not show’ I don’t know what is.

The only way I can describe the language is ‘spiky’. It’s like a piece of modern art – all angles and straight lines and stop-and-start. Some of the imagery is staggering, but too often it’s swallowed up in its own cleverness, as though the whole thing was an exercise in creative writing rather than flowing from the writer’s heart. There are way too many trendy devices, such as using partial sentences (“Soft, breezy May of this land-altering year in Mardale.”), using a dash rather than quote marks to indicate speech, and writing the northern dialect phonetically. All these are unnecessary, come across as pretentious, and get horribly in the way of the story. Never using the word ‘said’ may be an interesting exercise for a college class, but in the middle of a novel it makes it hard to work out who’s speaking, especially in long exchanges of dialogue or where there’s more than two characters talking. And the phonetics are quite simply baffling, even to a reader who grew up in the north of England. Do we really need every instance of ‘right’ to be spelt ‘reet’, or ‘take’ to be ‘tek’? Isn’t it already obvious that northern people speak that way, without ramming it down the reader’s throat? It gives rise to lines of dialogue like:

Cy, cy, gan ower bridge;

Yan or two.  A week, mebbi less.  Best git yer breeches out, lass;

Tek it off. Get on, gaily lad.

All of which is exhausting, and desperately unlovely to read.  A skilled author should be able to suggest dialect without having to (quite literally) spell it out.

The characters are every bit as unlikeable as the prose, and felt stage-managed into ciphers for particular themes rather than being allowed to develop as human, believable people in their own right. Janet’s mother in particular is clearly meant to represent the anger and religious zeal of the local people in their fight against the reservoir, and comes off the page as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. And a bit of a stereotype, if truth be told. How many times have we seen embittered northern battle-axe farmers’ wives in tv dramas over the years? Weren’t any of them kind, or friendly, or well-read?

Janet herself is like a 1960s hippie or an outcast from Greenham Common, hanging about the hills in little more than a cotton dress and wellies, visiting the local pub with the men, and generally acting in a way that would have been wholly unacceptable at the time. I found it almost impossible to believe that her decent, God-fearing father or her Puritanical mother would have allowed her that much freedom to roam, or that the community as a whole wouldn’t have cold-shouldered her if she’d really behaved that way. My mother grew up in a northern city at about the same time, and there was no way she would have been allowed to mooch about outdoors alone without being labelled as ‘no better than she ought to be’.  Once again, it felt as though the character only existed in order to carry out the tasks assigned to her by the author. She didn’t feel real.

And as for the local artist who’s written in simply to introduce the ‘hero’, Jack, and promptly vanishes again as though the waters of Haweswater had closed above his head, the less said about using him as a device the better.

If I sound cross, it’s because I am, a little. I get so tired of critics falling on books and praising them for their brilliance, only to find that the same books are virtually unreadable. I had high hopes of this one, which has a setting I love and a story that should have been fascinating. Told in a more traditional format, with believable characters, a workable chronology to build the tension of unfolding events, and the skill to immerse the reader in the story, it could have been gripping. As it is, the author is so busy being clever that the poignant human drama she’s supposed to be telling us about gets lost in the noise. And I paid £8 for a book I can’t even read.


  1. I’m especially surprised about the local dialect. I agree and a hint of the sounds is enough. There’s many ways to bring that into a book and then continue writing as normal. In fact, I know someone who turned their back on publishing precisely because no publisher would take his book as written in a local dialect. Publishers were interested in the book but the author refused to alter one word and insisted all the speech needed ‘spelling’ accordingly. Seeing as that was the condition of every publisher that saw it, I can only think the writer turned his back on a wonderful opportunity for simply not realising that there was a good reason for the change. The book was a great story but a struggle to read.

  2. This book breaks so many taboos that I’d love to know how it got published at all. Not just the dialect and the weird formatting, but telling rather than showing, and even head-hopping. If I put those in a novel it would be rejected instantly…

    Perhaps you should introduce your friend to Hall’s publisher. 🙂

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