Crop circles, Falklands trauma and ‘fields full of stories’ – this novel is a hymn to rural England
A traditional question asked of writers – with classics such as how long they write each day – is whether they start with a plot or characters. Benjamin Myers’ answer, however, would be “neither of the above”. “For me,” he says, “place comes first”: a fact reflected in his loving descriptions of the rural landscapes in which his novels are set.
In the past, these landscapes were usually in the north of England where he was born and where he now lives. His groundbreaking 2017 novel The Gallows Pole was about violent 18th-century counterfeiters in the Calder Valley. His most recent, The Offing, is set in the countryside near Robin Hood’s Bay. It also, as he acknowledged, marked “a U-turn” from his more brutal early fiction to something softer.
Now in The Perfect Golden Circle, he continues both his longstanding commitment to rural England and his newfound sweetness, but this time in Wiltshire. Not that the move south proves a vast transformation. Again, the characters here are people from outside the mainstream society. Once again too, the book is crossed by a romantic, even mystical radicalism, which William Blake would have approved.
So Myers begins with an unabashedly lyrical hymn to “fields full of stories, centuries and centuries of stories laid upon each other”. We then cut to two men who are in the middle of a summer evening in 1989, creating a circle of corn. For some people that might be a bit fun – but not for these two: Redbone, a New Age traveler, and Calvert, a mentally and physically scarred Falklands veteran. Instead, they see the making of corn circles as a sacred mission. By producing something mysteriously beautiful (and remaining anonymous), they “bring attention to the land itself…get people to learn to love it so they don’t take it for granted.”
And as far as the plot goes, that’s about it. Over the next nine chapters, Redbone and Calvert produce increasingly ornate designs as their touching and largely unspoken friendship deepens. We also receive newspaper articles about circles and the comically flawed theories put forward to explain them, including by bona fide scientists. Less comically, the pair encounter people who pose various threats to England’s timeless beauty: from fly-tippers to a group of hare-hunting townspeople driving a jeep over crops. (Naturally, Redbone and Calvert themselves are careful not to break a single stem.)
The result is a novel that clearly yearns for a mysterious beauty of its own. So does he succeed? The slightly unsatisfactory answer is a firm “sort of”. There’s no doubt that the sincerity of Myers’ love for the land – or for much of the book, his writing is strong enough to make it powerfully infectious. At the same time, however, he does not always avoid the pitfalls that such sincerity brings.
Obviously, his richly poetic prose can get too rich. At one characteristic moment, the arrival of summer is compared to “a cold-skinned lizard-skinned beast sitting deep in the ancient dust of an ancient island”. At another, the lenses of Calvert’s sunglasses are “as dark as scorched stars drifting through endless time and space, whirlpools of nothingness.” Not all of the novel’s comparisons stand up to scrutiny (“Around them the hills of England are sentient like mattresses stuffed with secrets”) while several others are oddly extended: the sound of owls is “as if a needle was stuck on the disc which plays continuously in an empty office at the back of an abandoned building guarded by a solitary night watchman for whom retirement cannot come soon enough”.
Occasionally, the book also shows the kind of contempt for “straight” society — that is, ordinary people doing their best to care for their families — that frequently accompanies mysticism. In the end, the author’s message, quite attractive at first, has perhaps been heard loud and clear a little too often.
In short, if this review were a report card, I would be tempted to conclude by saying that Myers has a lot of talent and a lot to say – but he really needs to try less.
The Perfect Golden Circle is published by Bloomsbury Circle at £16.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk