June Book Group – ‘On the Black Hill’ by Bruce Chatwin

After the discussion of Margiad Evans’s ‘Country Dance‘ in April, one book group member suggested ‘On the Black Hill‘ as a future read with the idea that it could be viewed as the type of novel Evans might have written had she developed her novella. The book group agreed there were definite similarities between both authors’ books despite them being published exactly fifty years apart. Both have a border country setting, although this is not as important to the plot of the novel in ‘On the Black Hill’. We thought that it was an achievement for both authors to write brilliant yet simple prose. Very little happens throughout the novel yet you are compelled to read on.

Documenting the lives of twins Benjamin and Lewis throughout the twentieth-century, Chatwin’s novel rarely moves away from the farmstead of the Jones family. We agreed that this is not necessarily a book you would expect from a writer who was famed for his travel writing. If anything the novel has an anti-travel message and aims to convey the message that in order to lead a fulfilling life you do not need to have visited all four corners of the world.

As a group we liked the way we saw the characters of Benjamin and Lewis develop over the novel. However, it did feel like a novel of two halves. The first half was better written with more emphasis on the lives of the twins’ parents. The second half became more episodic with each chapter telling of a random event in the lives of the twins rather than developing much of a story.

We picked up on the almost biblical quality of the story-telling. The novel tended to cover vast periods of time in only a short space. We were not sure whether this was a good thing – but perhaps inevitable when trying to cover over eighty years in under 300 pages! The collection of unusual characters is also another aspect of the novel we enjoyed. Kevin and his hippy friends and crazy old Meg made for interesting reading. It was also interesting to see how Chatwin highlighted how little the major events of the twentieth century (including two world wars) rarely touched the lives of the twins.

Before finding out what everyone thought of ‘On the Black Hill’ I was worried that the group might have found it a depressing and bleak view of rural life in the border countryside. Whilst the novel does document the harsh reality of this type of lifestyle we found that ultimately it was a hopeful book, especially in the documentation of the unique relationship between Benjamin and Lewis. The twins who do not marry or have children of their own go against society expectations and live fulfilled lives.