The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

Seeds of evil…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Brothers Neil and Calum work as foresters in Ardmore in the Scottish highlands. Calum is a simple-minded but happy soul, his twisted, hunched back making him clumsy on the ground, but once he is climbing in his beloved trees he is agile and sure-footed. Neil, the older brother, has devoted his life to looking after Calum, resenting every slight and insult that’s been directed at him far more than Calum himself. Now they have been sent to the estate of Lady Runcie-Campbell to gather cones from the trees in her woods, prior to the woods being chopped down as part of the war effort.

But Lady Runcie-Campbell’s gamekeeper, Duror, has taken a strong dislike to them, especially to Calum. Partly this is because Calum’s soft heart has led him to free animals caught in Duror’s traps, but mainly it’s an irrational horror of the stunted body and mind of the man, mirroring Duror’s own stunted life, which has turned out so differently from what he expected. Duror’s young wife whom he loved was struck by an unspecified illness three years after they wed, leaving her bedridden and obese. Now, twenty years on, she is needy and whiny, mainly because Duror makes it so plain that he can’t bear to spend time in her company. Duror has buried deep within himself his resentment at the unfairness of his life, as he sees it, but something about the little hunchback Calum has triggered his pent-up anger, turning him into a malevolent, bullying monster.

Hidden among the spruces at the edge of the ride, near enough to catch the smell of larch off the cones and to be struck by some of those thrown, stood Duror the gamekeeper, in an icy sweat of hatred, with his gun aimed all the time at the feeble-minded hunchback grovelling over the rabbit. To pull the trigger, requiring far less force than to break a rabbit’s neck, and then to hear simultaneously the clean report of the gun and the last obscene squeal of the killed dwarf would have been for him, he thought, release too, from the noose of disgust and despair drawn, these past few days, so much tighter.

The Second World War is happening in the background, so that this small community is missing young men. Lady Runcie-Campbell is only in charge because her husband is away in the army, and obviously, being a woman, she’s not very good at man management. (Well, it was written in 1955.) She’d prefer not to know about anything that might disrupt her perfect lifestyle or prick her conscience, like the atrocious conditions the cone-gatherers are expected to live in, so leaves everything she can up to Duror. She is always striving to become a better Christian and wants her children to grow up with true Christian values. On the other hand, she has been tasked by her husband to make sure their son grows up to be a true aristocrat, confident in his superior breeding and properly haughty to the hoi-polloi. Lady Runcie-Campbell’s own upbringing means she sees no problem in reconciling these things, but her son shows an irritating capacity to feel sympathy for the people she bullies and demeans.

The still is from a BBC Bitesize production for use in schools as a teaching aid.

As a Scottish classic, I tried hard to love this book, but failed, though I certainly didn’t hate it either. It has an air of impending doom from the first pages, a tragedy so well signalled that the end is never really in doubt. This can work, so long as the journey is interesting enough. Here, while the writing is skilled and often very powerful, the characters never came to life for me, each feeling like a representative of an aspect of humanity that Jenkins wanted to show, rather than a truly rounded individual. It comments a little on the changing social order of the time, when the lower classes were no longer prepared to accept without criticism the inequality in society, nor to obey without question the orders of their social superiors. But it does it in a way that I found rather obvious, without nuance. There’s a similar lack of subtlety in the direct comparison it draws between Duror’s irrational hatred of the hunchbacked Calum and the atrocities carried out by the Nazis. I feel the author should sometimes leave the reader to do some of the work.

He had read that the Germans were putting idiots and cripples to death in gas chambers. Outwardly, as everybody expected, he condemned such barbarity; inwardly, thinking of idiocy and crippledness not as abstractions but as embodied in the crouchbacked cone-gatherer, he had profoundly approved.

Robin Jenkins

Elsewhere, religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains. There’s an odd episode in the middle when the brothers visit the nearby town, where everyone is preternaturally nice to them, in too stark contrast to the evil that surrounds them in the woods. It reminded me a little in tone of Of Mice and Men – the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn to bathos if an author isn’t careful. Jenkins narrowly avoids bathos, but in the process he also loses the emotionalism, the light and shade, that might have lifted this book above being a simple allegory of good and evil. My lack of belief in the characters as people meant that the long-anticipated tragic ending left me disappointingly unmoved, despite my admiration for the prose.

Book 7 of 90

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40 thoughts on “The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

  1. It sounds as though this one definitely has a creepy atmosphere, and lot of tension, FictionFan. I like the setting, too. As you say, well-developed characters are what really ‘make’ a book like this, so I know what you mean about not falling in love with it. Still, it sounds a good read.

    • Yes, lots of good stuff about it, but I just never felt as involved as I wanted to be somehow. However he was definitely going for an allegory, so maybe he didn’t feel it was necessary to make the characters feel real, but it left me a little underwhelmed…

    • Yes, I see what you mean, I think, though it must be forty years since I read it so my memory is vague in the extreme! This one had a lot of good stuff, especially the power in the wiritng, but that lack of feeling the characters were “real” just stopped me loving it…

  2. Great review – maybe it’s meant for Standard Grade – or whatever they call it now! – readers, 15 year olds, like Of Mice And Men, which we read then? A bit simplistic for adults. The characters TOTALLY sound like the sort of people my Dad talks about when he talks about growing up in the Highlands – Lords and Ladies who called him by his surname, and expected you to tug your forelock! I love listening to his stories, although I’m biased obviously! 😁

    • Well, it was interesting to realise what an old fuddy-duddy I’ve obviously become, because there was stuff in this that I felt shouldn’t be in a school text – lots of stuff about how Duror was warped by not being able to have sex for twenty years, and stuff about people flashing in the woods! Probably wouldn’t have bothered me at all when I was fifteen! 😉 But there was lots of good stuff in it too, and I felt the picture of the snobs and the “common” people was well done, so you might enjoy it for that aspect alone. I just wish I’d cared more about the characters…

      • I think these passages would have provoked some sniggering in our school (although we were particularly awful for any chance to snigger, the French for swimming pool provided endless amusement…) I do keep hearing this is a Scottish classic, but I think I’ll leave it for now!

  3. For some reason I read brothers as Brothers and thought, “Sure, monks in the forest.” Too bad that this one isn’t better…sounds like it had potential.

    • Hahaha! That might have added an extra element of badly-needed fun to the whole thing! 😉 Yes, lots to admire, especially the power of the writing, but I just never felt as connected to the characters as I wanted to be… oh, well!

  4. Aw, gee, it’s rough to end the week with a less-than-stellar read, huh? Take comfort, FF, you’ve reviewed this one admirably, even if you didn’t give it five stars. Now go enjoy your weekend!

    • Yes, I was hoping to enjoy this one more, but never mind! I’d had a good long run of great reads so it was bound to end sometime, and I certainly didn’t totally dislike this one, so all’s well! Have a great weekend, Debbie!

  5. I’ve never heard of this book or author. I don’t think I’ll add it to my list (using your question of ‘Would I rather read this than something already on my list?) but I enjoyed the review. It’s hard to love a book when the characters don’t become human.

  6. Sorry this one didn’t quite meet your expectations although it sounds far from being a complete dud! It does sound quite a metaphorical read but not one that I need to put on my list (thankfully)

    • There was a lot to like about it, especially the powerful prose, but I’m afraid I never love a book if I can’t care about the characters. Oh, well! Hopefully I’ll find a Scottish classic I’ll be happy to twist arms about…!

  7. I’ve started this a couple of times, but never finished it – I just couldn’t get involved in the characters, who all seemed to me to be stereotypes, not people.

    • Yes, it was a pity, because there was a lot to like, but it just never engaged my emotions, so didn’t really work for me. Plus when an ending is as well signalled as this one, it takes away any element of tension…

  8. Hmmmm, overall, a disappointment then. The book, I mean of course, not your review 😉 I was hoping for good things from this book (though I can’t remember why I’d built it up in my mind); one to pass on, I think 🙂

    • I must say the blurb made it sound more interesting than it really was, I felt. It’s a pity, though, because some of the prose was great – maybe I’ll try one of his later books sometime and see how he developed, though I believe this is the one he’s most famous for…

  9. Sadly, I’d never heard of this title or author, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I don’t think I’ll add it to the TBR (she says with relief) but I very much enjoyed your wonderful review! Oh, and your mention of Of Mice and Men gives me a shuddering flashback to high school freshman year English… ugh!

    • Ha! Neither had I and that’s shameful since apparently it’s a Scottish classic! Thank you! Haha! Yes, Of Mice and Men takes me back to those awful days too… the things they torture kids with, eh? 😉

    • They were gathering cones from the trees in Lady Thingummy’s forest, so that it could be replanted after the wood had been chopped down to serve the war effort. No, it was entirely dialect free, which was the norm for Scottish writing of the time – it’s only more recently, really, that our culture has revived enough for people to use dialect.

      • I can’t remember: do you like the books written in dialect? I love it. In the U.S. it often is a return to the writer’s native way of speaking. There are a lot of conversations about Standard English being white English. I think reading Zora Neale Hurston emphasizes the point.

        • I do, so long as it’s done well and isn’t so broad that it’s hard to understand. Over here, it’s not so much about race as about the cultural dominance of the south of England over the rest of the UK… but having been educated in Standard English, I’m really happier with it overall, since I don’t really speak a dialect myself…

            • Hmm – they might do to non-Scots, but no, there are lots of different regional accents, and some areas still speak Gaelic rather than English. I reckon if you heard a Highlander and a Glaswegian at the same time, you would hear a real difference… and then of course rich people speak entirely differently than working class people.

            • Ha! No need to feel stupid – we’re so confused about our nationality over here, it’s not surprising we manage to confuse everyone else! No, I speak English with a Scottish (Glaswegian) accent.

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