There’s so much to know. It will never end, I suspect, even when it does. So much in all these lives, so many stories, even in this small place.
Villages are full of tales: some are forgotten while others become a part of local folklore. But the fortunes of one West Country village are watched over and irreversibly etched into its history as an omniscient, somewhat crabby, presence keeps track of village life.
In the late sixties a Californian musician blows through Underhill where he writes a set of haunting folk songs that will earn him a group of obsessive fans and a cult following. Two decades later, a couple of teenagers disturb a body on the local golf course. In 2019, a pair of lodgers discover a one-eyed rag doll hidden in the walls of their crumbling and neglected home. Connections are forged and broken across generations, but only the landscape itself can link them together. A landscape threatened by property development and superfast train corridors and speckled by the pylons whose feet have been buried across the moor.
Tom Cox first came to my attention with his warm and amusing non-fiction books about life with his cats (Under the Paw; Talk to the Tail; The Good, the Bad, and The Furry; and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind). His subsequent moves, firstly into a form of nature writing that blended observations of the natural world with folklore, ghost stories, and amusing interludes from his dad (21st-Century Yokel, Ring the Hill and Notebook) and, later, into short fiction (Help the Witch), demonstrated both his range and his skill as a writer whose work defies easy categorisation.
Villager – Cox’s first novel – appears, on the surface at least, to comprise of a similar miscellany of interests, with the story ranging from the the early parts of the twentieth century through to the not-too-distant future, taking in Cox’s passions for music, nature, and folklore along the way. As a result the novel can, in the early portions at least, feel somewhat disjointed: closer to an interconnected short story collection than a cohesive narrative.
Stick with it, however, and Cox’s tale of a moor, a village, and several generations of its inhabitants, takes its reader on a kaleidoscopic and psychedelic but ultimately rewarding journey that reveals the subtle connections between a landscape and the people who inhabit it, and hints at the consequences that come about as a result of our increasing disconnect with the countryside that we inhabit.
Whilst the narrative structure requires readers to do a little legwork to draw out the connections, the individual voices within the chapters resonate with Cox’s trademark warmth and dry humour. Interspersed with the voice of ‘Me (Now)’, the novels moves between people and time periods to trace the overlapping and interweaving lives of the village of Underhill and its inhabitants, with a central thread following the arrival and impact of a washed-up Californian musician and the folk songs he leaves behind him.
Juxtaposing comedic observations of the mundane and wry pen portraits of village life with moments of insight into everything from human motivation to environmental impact, Cox’s writing is as layered as his narrative and I often found myself moving between laughter one moment and an uneasy melancholy in the next. Whilst some characters resonated with me more than others – I particularly liked the golf-obsessed teenager and the narrative of ‘Me (Now)’ – Villager offers such a varied plethora of voices that the narrative, although reflective and lyrical, never felt bogged down or meandering. Instead, the choral nature helped me to become more immersed into the novel as each new voice gradually reveals a segment of the wider narrative.
Villager is definitely not going to be a novel for everyone. The narrative structure and lyrical writing require some effort on the part of the reader, whilst the gentle pacing – especially at the novel’s start – requires some patience. Those new to Cox’s writing may prefer to start with his (excellent) short story collection, Help the Witch, or with some of the non-fiction writing on his (also excellent) blog to get a feel for his style prior to diving in. For fans of Cox’s work – and readers who enjoy lyrical, genre-defying fiction by writers such as Alan Garner – Villager is an ambitious, unique, and ultimately rewarding read.
Villager by Tom Cox is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery, as well as direct from the Unbound website.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
I supported Villager’s publication via Unbound however my thanks go to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 08 June 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!
Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!