On the Black Hill – Bruce Chatwin

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Brothers, twins in body and spirit, spend much of their lives together on a farm at the Welsh-English border.

I’ve not read Bruce Chatwin before, but have heard of him mainly as a travel writer. Certainly, in On the Black Hill, his prose is simple and unembroidered. However, he demonstrates that it is also possible to be too plain. The events of the book, tangled and of great potential interest, pass by like notes in an almanac. On this day, this happened; on the next, that happened. While the book follows the lives of the two brothers in great detail, it never roused my interest in either of them. While a few other colorful characters come in and out, others are summarily dealt with in a few paragraphs.

The novel has a fairly clumsy start – after a chapter on the twins late life, the book suddenly and without warning drops back to a time before their birth, to give the history of the farm itself. In fact, while seeming to be about the men, the book could just as easily be seen as about the farmhouse itself – a view probably better fitting its cool, dry voice.

If the book engendered any real feeling in me, it was one of frustration – the twins are curiously passionless, despite a family and neighbours steeped in passion. They drift, and seldom do much. In part, Chatwin’s intent is to explain just that, but the story comes across less as a novel than as an almost clinical look at what one might take for a true story. Chatwin is known as a travel writer, and perhaps that was his true calling. The descriptions in the book are colorful and interesting. I wish the characters had been as well.

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