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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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

After the first few times, when things had gone wrong, there was no point denying it, the people who’d stayed in the farmhouse had been treated well. They’d been fed, kept warm and safe. After what they’d been through on the journey, the farmhouse really wasn’t that bad.

Warily the woman stepped forward, allowing Cat to take her arm and lead her into the next room, the one where they kept the medical equipment and the records. He breathed an invisible sigh of relief. He’d got quite good at keeping them calm and cooperative.

Of course, they all panicked when they saw the leather straps.

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The dogs were uneasy. Although he spoke to them with more than customary friendliness, and handled them with unwonted gentleness, they still mistrusted him. They nuzzled into his hands, they thrust themselves against his legs, they gazed up at him with affection; but there was always a detectable droop of appeasement, as if they sensed what was in his mind and were afraid that it might at any moment goad him into maltreating them. He was more and more aware of their apprehension, and saw himself, in furious revenge, rising and snatching a switch from the wall, and thrashing them till their noses and eyes dripped faithful blood: they would suffer his maddest cruelty without retaliation. But as he saw himself thus berserk he sat in the box and continued to pat the cringing dogs and speak consolingly to them.

* * * * * * * * *

The oilmen have arrived from Beijing for a ceremonial signing-over of drilling rights. It’s a holiday for them, their translator told me last night at the Grozny Eternity Hotel, which is both the only five-star hotel and the only hotel in the Republic. I nodded solemnly; he needn’t explain. I came of age in the reign of Brezhnev, when young men would enter Civil Service academies hardy and robust, only to leave two years later anaemic and stooped, cured forever of the inclination to be civil or of service to anyone. Still, Beijing must be grim if they’re vacationing in Chechnya.

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All is changed and yet all remains as before. The revolution has shaken the country, deepened the split, frightened some, embittered others, but not yet wiped out a thing or replaced it. Imperial St Petersburg seems drowned in a sleepy lethargy rather than dead. The revolution has stuck little red flags in the hands of the cast-iron monuments of the monarchy. Great red streamers are hanging down the fronts of the government buildings. But the Winter Palace, the ministries, the headquarters, seem to be living a life entirely apart from those red banners, tolerably faded, moreover, by the autumn rains. The two-headed eagles with the sceptre of empire have been torn down where possible, but oftener draped or hastily painted over. They seem to be lurking there. All the old Russia is lurking, its jaw set in rage.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 111…

Episode 111…

Oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear! The TBR has gone up again – how??? I’ve been so strict with myself!!! But I’m still managing to avoid going over the 200 watershed – this week’s total is 198…

Time to get some reading done – quickly! Here are some that are coming up soon…

Factual

a-peoples-tragedyFor the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. It’ll be ages before I get to this (I need to get through Trotsky first) but I thought I’d give it a mention now, since The Bodley Head have issued this special centenary edition and kindly let me have a copy. Another 900+ pages – whose idea was this challenge?? But it’s lavishly illustrated so that’s always a bonus… and it’s a nicely designed, good quality paperback with what I think are called French flaps on both the front and back covers.

The Blurb says: Opening with a panorama of Russian society, from the cloistered world of the Tsar to the brutal life of the peasants, A People’s Tragedy follows workers, soldiers, intellectuals and villagers as their world is consumed by revolution and then degenerates into violence and dictatorship. Drawing on vast original research, Figes conveys above all the shocking experience of the revolution for those who lived it, while providing the clearest and most cogent account of how and why it unfolded.

Illustrated with over 100 photographs and now including a new introduction that reflects on the revolution’s centennial legacy, A People’s Tragedy is a masterful and definitive record of one of the most important events in modern history.

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Fiction

the cone gatherers 2This one appeared on a TBR post a couple of years ago but I didn’t get around to reading it at that time, and it’s been gazing at me accusingly ever since. So to make it feel better, I stuck it on my Classics Club list under the Scottish section…

The Blurb says:  Calum and Neil are the cone-gatherers – two brothers at work in the forest of a large Scottish estate. But the harmony of their life together is shadowed by the obsessive hatred of Duror, the gamekeeper.

Set during the Second World War, Robin Jenkins’ greatest novel is an immensely powerful examination of good and evil, and mankind’s propensity for both. Removed from the destruction and bloodshed of the war, the brothers’ oblivious happiness becomes increasingly fragile as darker forces close in around them.

Suspenseful, dark and unforgettable, The Cone-Gatherers is a towering work of fiction, a masterpiece of modern Scottish literature.

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Crime

the-bishops-girlA couple of years ago, I reviewed Rebecca Burns’ excellent short story collection, The Settling Earth. So when she contacted me to offer a copy of her new novel, I was delighted. I realise the blurb makes it sound a bit like a romance, but I’m reliably informed (by the author!) that it’s actually a historical fiction/mystery…

The Blurb says: The body had no name. It was not supposed to be there…

Jess is a researcher on a quest to give the one-hundred-year-old skeleton, discovered in the exhumed grave of a prominent bishop, an identity. But she’s not sure of her own – her career is stalling, her marriage is failing. She doesn’t want to spend hours in the archives, rifling through dusty papers in an endless search for a name. And when a young man named Hayden makes clear his interest in her, Jess has to decide what is most important to her.

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Crime

let-the-dead-speakCourtesy of NetGalley. Woohoo! Maeve Kerrigan is back – and it looks like she’s been promoted! It’s been a loooooooong wait for this one!

The Blurb says: The chilling new crime novel from award-winning author, Jane Casey. When an 18-year-old girl returns home to find her house covered in blood and her mother missing, Detective Maeve Kerrigan and the murder squad must navigate a web of lies to discover the truth… When eighteen-year-old Chloe Emery returns to her West London home she finds Kate, her mother, missing and the house covered in blood. There may not be a body, but everything else points to murder. Maeve Kerrigan is young, ambitious and determined to prove she’s up to her new role as detective sergeant. In the absence of a body, she and maverick detective Josh Derwent turn their attention to the neighbours. The ultra-religious Norrises are acting suspiciously; their teenage daughter definitely has something to hide. Then there’s William Turner, once accused of stabbing a schoolmate and the neighbourhood’s favourite criminal. Is he merely a scapegoat or is there more behind the charismatic façade? As the accusations fly, Maeve must piece together a patchwork of conflicting testimonies, none of which quite add up. Who is lying, who is not? The answer could lead them to the truth about Kate Emery, and save the life of someone else.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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TBR Thursday 62…

Episode 62

 

151. 151. 151!!! No matter what I do that dratted TBR just keeps getting bigger! It’s not my fault – I think the cats log on to NetGalley when I’m asleep. Getting close to the end of the 20 Books of Summer Challenge now and might just do it! Though the US Open starts soon…


rafa gif

Here are a few that should reach the top of the pile soon…

Factual

 

the year of learCourtesy of NetGalley. I love the sound of this one and am hoping it’s not too academic in style. Must watch the plays again in preparation – Macbeth is my favourite of all the Shakespeare plays…

The Blurb says Preeminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro shows how the tumultuous events in England in 1606 affected Shakespeare and shaped the three great tragedies he wrote that year—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

In the years leading up to 1606, since the death of Queen Elizabeth and the arrival in England of her successor, King James of Scotland, Shakespeare’s great productivity had ebbed, and it may have seemed to some that his prolific genius was a thing of the past. But that year, at age forty-two, he found his footing again, finishing a play he had begun the previous autumn—King Lear—then writing two other great tragedies, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. It was a memorable year in England as well—and a grim one, in the aftermath of a terrorist plot conceived by a small group of Catholic gentry that had been uncovered at the last hour. The foiled Gunpowder Plot would have blown up the king and royal family along with the nation’s political and religious leadership. The aborted plot renewed anti-Catholic sentiment and laid bare divisions in the kingdom. It was against this background that Shakespeare finished Lear, a play about a divided kingdom, then wrote a tragedy that turned on the murder of a Scottish king, Macbeth. He ended this astonishing year with a third masterpiece no less steeped in current events and concerns: Antony and Cleopatra.

The Year of Lear sheds light on these three great tragedies by placing them in the context of their times, while also allowing us greater insight into how Shakespeare was personally touched by such events as a terrible outbreak of plague and growing religious divisions. For anyone interested in Shakespeare, this is an indispensable book.”

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Fiction

 

Two Years Eight Months 2Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve never made it through a Rushdie novel, but I suspect that my tastes have changed enough since I last tried long, long ago to give this one a fair chance of success… it sounds brilliant!

The Blurb says “In the near future, after a storm strikes New York City, the strangenesses begin. A down-to-earth gardener finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. A graphic novelist awakens in his bedroom to a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub–Stan Lee creation. Abandoned at the mayor’s office, a baby identifies corruption with her mere presence, marking the guilty with blemishes and boils. A seductive gold digger is soon tapped to combat forces beyond imagining.

Unbeknownst to them, they are all descended from the whimsical, capricious, wanton creatures known as the jinn, who live in a world separated from ours by a veil. Centuries ago, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason. Together they produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world. Once the line between worlds is breached on a grand scale, Dunia’s children and others will play a role in an epic war between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, in which beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse.

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Fiction

 

the cone gatherers 2One of the 20 Books of Summer list. I don’t know much about it, but it appears on lists of “Best Scottish Fiction” quite regularly, so we shall see…

The Blurb says An immensely powerful examination of mankind’s propensity for both good and evil, inspired by the author’s wartime experience as a conscientious objector doing forestry work.

Calum and Neil are the cone-gatherers—two brothers at work in the forest of a large Scottish estate. But the harmony of their life together is shadowed by the obsessive hatred of Duror, the gamekeeper. Set during World War II yet removed from the destruction and bloodshed of the war, the brothers’ oblivious happiness becomes increasingly fragile as darker forces close in around them. Suspenseful, dark, and unforgettable, this is a towering work of fiction, a masterpiece of modern Scottish literature.

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Fiction

 

Docherty 2I was blown away by McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, and this one comes with a personal recommendation from BigSister, my earliest reading guru, so can’t wait to get to it…

The Blurb saysWinner of the Whitbread prize, by one of Scotland’s greatest living novelists.

Tam Docherty’s youngest son, Conn, is born at the end of 1903 in a small working-class town in the west of Scotland. Tam will stop at nothing to make sure that life and the pits don’t swallow up his boy, the way it did him. Courageous and questioning, Docherty emerges as a leader of almost unshakable strength, but in a close-knit community tradition is a powerful opponent.

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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?