As former farmhand Jake, a widower in his seventies, wanders the beautiful, austere moors of North Yorkshire trying to evade capture, we learn of the events of his past: the wife he loved and lost, their child he knows cannot be his, and the deep-seated need for revenge that manifests itself in a moment of violence.
On the coast, Jake’s friend, Sheila, receives the devastating news. The aftermath of Jake’s actions, and what it brings to the surface, will change her life forever. But how will she react when he turns up at her door?
As beauty and tenderness blend with violence, this story transports us to a different world, subtly exploring love and loss in a language that both bruises and heals.
Loss, grief, wrath, and unswerving, immutable love. It’s fair to say that Ray Robinson’s The Mating Habits of Stags packs a lot of complex emotions into a slender volume.
Coming in at just 222 pages, The Mating Habits of Stags is a majestic and lyrical novel that is both savage and tender in equal measure. Slipping back and forth over time, the novel follows former farmhand Jake, an aged and tough outdoorsman mourning the loss of his beloved wife Edith. He is also on the run from the law after committing a terrible act of violent revenge.
As Jake journey across the countryside, spiraling back into memories of his time with Edith and of the terrible betrayal that has led him to this point, we are taken on a lyrical journey. Lush, gorgeous descriptions of the Yorkshire Fells are contrasted sharply with visceral depictions of natural decay in the same way that Jake’s evocative memories of Edith, and of their son William, are tainted with shades of the slow-burning hatred that led him to his current point.
Jake’s friend Sheila, meanwhile, is contemplating what would have led the gruff but devoted man she knew to commit such a terrible act of vengeance. As she struggles to untangle her own feelings for Jake, she is confronted by the consequences of her own choices, and by the choices that have led her to where she is now – and the possibilities that Jake’s actions open up for her future.
It is difficult to fully describe The Mating Habits of Stags because it is one of those novels where nothing happens and yet, simultaneously, everything happens. The action of the plot encompasses both just a few days and an entire life, unwinding in slow-moving, lyrical prose that both captivates and enthralls. It’s like the reading equivalent of wading into a river and getting swept downstream until the final page if that makes any sense?
And as for that final page? The closing pages were enough to make me weep, offering both a bittersweet and satisfying conclusion to both Jake and Sheila’s journey. It’s taken me a little while to order my thoughts enough to write up this review because this is a novel that definitely left me thinking – about the choices we make in life, the roads not taken, and the unexpected impact that our lives leave on those around us.
The closest comparison I can think of for The Mating Habits of Stags is Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, another gentle stroll of a book that packed a surprising punch and reveled in glorious descriptions of the natural world. Or possibly Robert Macfarland’s The Old Ways with it’s contrast of natural beauty and haunting history. Certainly if you enjoyed either of those I think you’d get a lot from The Mating Habits of Stags, with its rhapsodic blend of the sublime and the savage and its beautiful exploration of the ripples of human existence.
The Mating Habits of Stags by Ray Robinson is published by Lightning Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers, including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.