Book Review: Addlands by Tom Bullough

Book - Addlands by Tom BulloughAddlands is a book that takes you to another place – a rural mid-Wales that no longer exists, where time was slower and life was hard. It begins in 1941, as the farmer, Idris Hamer, ploughs his land with determination, content with his place in the natural world, surrounded by his dogs, his horse, “seacrows, starlings and lapwings”. We move from moment to moment, gaining vivid, brief impressions of life in the Funnon, passing through the years, chapter by chapter, until finally we reach 2016, where the story concludes, aeons away from its beginnings.   

Idris Hamer stands at the centre of the book – old before his time, haunted by his experiences of fighting in the First World War, delighting in nature, and a proud Methodist who loves to sing. Etty, his wife, is a survivor. Her mother, Molly, is another strong woman who refuses to give in to her husband’s entreaties. The three of them co-exist until Etty gives birth to Oliver, who both fits perfectly into the life of the farm and stands out as foreign, someone who doesn’t quite belong.

As Oliver grows up, his pet Raven (Maureen) perched on his shoulder, he soon discovers an ability to win fights, and an interest in girls, but the silent rivalry of his absent uncle Ivor, and the rumours surrounding his own origins will not go away.

Bullough’s style of writing is exquisite. I particularly like the way in which he describes the advent of technology, as something both positive and dangerous, exhilarating yet relentless. In this description, we see Etty looking out of the window at night, admiring the view:

“The stars decked the sky with their ploughs, bulls and gods – shapes, as a girl, she had defined herself as a friend doing a cartwheel, a kite with a tail of glittering bows – then, all of a sudden, there were stars on the ground. There it was at last, the electric. With wonder, with envy, she watched the bare white lights, which multiplied as the minutes progressed… until every contour the length of the valley had a constellation of its own.”

The narrative is interspersed with extracts from the newspapers, like small invasions from an alien world. Time passes. As Oliver grows up it seems that, while he is drawn momentarily to other things, other ways of life, he is ultimately rooted firmly in the earth of the Funnon.

photographGradually, more and more of the past is revealed; Etty’s disgrace of falling pregnant outside of marriage, the disagreement that resulted between her mother, Molly and her father, and the reasons behind the longstanding feud between Idris and his brother Ivor.

Illustrated with beautiful black and white photographs to show the changing of the seasons, this book is, above all else, about the passing of time, and the portrayal of a Welsh rural way of life long since forgotten. I did find it frustrating, at times, that each section is so short, providing only a brief glimpse into an instant of these people’s lives, then moving on. But this only adds to the sense of peering through time to another era.

Throughout the novel there is another, older presence, which seems to represent age itself – an ancient inscribed stone which acts both physically and metaphorically as a bridge, linking the characters to each other, and to a past even further back in time. Life goes on, it seems to say, no matter what.

Tom Bullough will be at the Cardiff Book Festival on 29th October, discussing Addlands and the art of writing about place.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.