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Walk into a limestone cave. You hear the drip drip drip of water, which is the continuous process of cave formation. You walk in with a few other people. There is the buzz of quiet conversation. And then someone tells you to be silent, switch off flashlights and just listen. There is a deafening quiet. Only drip drip drip with a haunting second’s pause.
Well, this is an experience I had some time back while trekking in limestone caves. But the reason I recall it here is because the book I just finished reading brought back that highly sensory memory. Sarah Hall’s “Haweswater” is such a hauntingly written book that even as I write the review a day after I finished reading the book, images from it remain etched in my mind. First, let me sum up this book, which won the British Commonwealth Award among a host of other well-deserved prizes. From its jacket –
The village of Mardale is a quiet corner of the world, cradled in a remote dale in England’s lovely Lake District. The rhythm of life in the deeply religious, sheltered community has not changed for centuries. But in 1936, when Waterworks representative Jack Ligget from industrial Manchester arrives with plans to build a new reservoir, he brings the much feared threat of impending change to this bucolic hamlet. And when he begins an intense and troubled affair with Janet Lightburn – a devout local woman of rare passion and strength of spirit – it can only lead to scandal, tragedy, and remarkable, desperate acts.
Now for the life of me I don’t know why I resisted this book for so long. I must have taken it out at least five to six times, flipped through and then put it back on my shelf. Because when I started reading it, I just could not put it down.
Hall has a gift for setting the scene and populating it with characters who seem like they cannot belong anywhere else. For about the first 100 pages, we get some sumptuous visuals of a rolling hillside with farms spaced out along the countryside. We are slowly introduced to a few of the people – Paul Levell the eccentric artist, Hazel Bowman, a woman who lives alone, Jake McGill the bawdy pub owner… But the centre of the novel is the Lightburn family. Samuel Lightburn is the mild-mannered, soft spoken father, deeply religious and conservative Ella is the mother, fiery and bold Janet is the daughter and her brother is little Isaac who loves taking dips in freezing cold water.
Precise, uncanny prose gives definition to these characters and although there are no elaborate descriptions we get to know them intimately. Hall’s gift for place too is evident right from the beginning –
“It was more than just a blustery autumnal morning, her father remembers, because the wind in the leaves of the great sycamores by Measand Hall was threatening somber repercussions in the brown darkness. There were invisible ills going on, he knew it. Slates being loosened. Fencing being rocked out of its foundation. The roses newly planted in front of the cottage must have been coming away from their crutches. He could hear foliage creaking and bending, the land of the valley itself was distressed. Samuel held a lantern, which was flickering and threatening to blow out…”
Do you see what I mean by the quietness? There are only these natural sounds that reverberate and lend a very haunting, atmospheric feel to the book. And it is so throughout. There's an old-worldly feel too; I had to constantly remind myself that this novel is set in the 1930s and not in the 1800s. I was savoring each line, so rich was the prose, so lyrical. I don’t usually go poetic on books but this book stayed with me long after I finished it.
If you look at the story, nothing much happens. Girl and guy fall into forbidden love and the consequences follow. Quite predictable. And the book has tragedy woven tightly into it. But what elevates Hall’s story from being a maudlin outing is your attachment to the characters that is formed by then.
I want to sidestep potential spoilers so I will stop here. This is a sad book, but it’s not just one where I would say ‘keep a box of tissues next to you.’ This goes deeper than that. It settles in your soul and just pulls you down. So, I would say keep an hour or so extra, after you finish reading the book, to just shake off that melancholy that is bound to come. I would also say don’t avoid the book just because it will make you feel down. There is a certain deliciousness in it, which you will not regret. After all, how many times do we feel down by the power of a book rather than due to the people around us.
Verdict: Prepare yourself for some downtime