By Sarah Hall
Harper Perennial. 265 pp. Paperback, $13.95
Book lovers haunting the moors of literary fiction in search of another tryst as stirring as Wuthering Heights should embrace Sarah Hall's first novel, Haweswater. Although the book's tardy, modest arrival in the United States (four years after it first appeared in England, and now only in paperback) probably condemns it to obscurity here, this young writer has enjoyed extraordinary success in England. Haweswater won the Commonwealth Best First Novel Award, and her second book, The Electric Michelangelo, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2004. Ideally, American book clubs -- preferring paperbacks and perpetually torn between the newest releases and the classics -- will discover this lush, tragic story about the obliteration of a real-life village in the Lake District.
Hall grew up in a farming community in northwest England near the Scottish border, not far from the Haweswater Reservoir. Built in the early 1930s, the four-mile-long reservoir was a cutting-edge feat of engineering at the time, but it involved flooding the little town of Mardale, where tenant farmers had worked and worshiped for centuries. Hall's novel, grounded in the stones and loam of this doomed village, is a celebration of that way of a life and a memorial of its passing -- unutterable sorrow balanced delicately with the intoxicating beauty of this place.
The story is full of subtly drawn characters -- some introduced even in the final chapters -- but it revolves around Janet Lightburn, the daughter of a respected tenant farmer. She was born in a hail of curses from her usually devout mother, and something of that surprising anger hovers around her as she grows up. "Her ways were not in keeping with her youth or her sex," Hall writes. "She had developed a disturbing habit of staring at things, staring clear into them, so that her eyes never dropped during chastisement or argument." Despite her raw beauty, she vexes the young men of Mardale, who find her too intimidating, too smart, too manly.
But then a stranger named Jack Liggett arrives in a new sports car, like something from another country, or even the future. "He was dressed for a dinner, or a dance, like an unusual, exotic bird," Hall writes, and he announced "a project so strange and vast that at first it was not taken seriously by the village." The farmers simply ignore the reservoir plans for months, as though it's too preposterous to worry about. But Janet "had both the intellectual dexterity of an adult and the reckless tongue of any youth running to catch up with their own life. . . . A volatile combination." She dives into the details of the project, exhorts the passive farmers to resist and finally confronts the dashing spokesman who has announced their demise.
Their sparring bristles with wry wit, a touch of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Neither Jack nor Janet can understand the attraction to the other. "It could have been sheer mischance," Hall writes. "For there are times when passion can describe a random passage of its own accord, like electrical energy in the atmosphere which will strike out in any direction, seeking a high object to ground itself on." When that first strike finally hits, it's a fantastically charged moment -- cover your eyes, Jane Austen! -- erotic and rough. These two forbidden lovers keep at it secretly in the forest, under a waterfall, behind the barn, leaving them scarred and bruised, with pebbles ground into their shoulders and pine sap in their hair. Jack falls in love with her and the land he's pledged to flood, while Janet burns with conflicted passion for "this beautiful, hateful, loved man." It's "the sort of romance that shakes up history and devastates valleys." That it results in a climax of legendary tragedy is signaled in the book's opening chapter without any reduction of its final power.
But their fated affair competes with another one just as passionate: the author's yearning for the village. Mardale is so beautiful that it seems to hover between our world and the land of myth. Hall never projects any modern-day environmental notions onto the past. Instead, she laments the loss of this valley with sentences that pass over the pages like a lover's caress: "In the morning the light was terracotta, a burnt orange lapping over the eastern fells. The road to Swindale was still eerie and unlit, twisting through trees on the steep valley side, soaked by shadow."
During periods of drought, the remains of stone buildings still rise above the surface of the Haweswater Reservoir. Hall's incantatory prose might call them forth again, too. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.