‘The nearest thing to poetry still in prose’

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Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Faced with a choice between her harsh farming life and the seductive but distant world of books and learning, Chris Guthrie eventually decides to remain at home, bound by her intense love of the land.

However, the First World War leaves her choice in tatters. Chris is now a widowed single mother: her farm, and the land it occupies, is altered beyond recognition – trees torn down, people displaced.

But although the novel describes a way of life which is in decline, it also presents a strong image of hope. Chris adapts to her new world, displaying an intuitive strength which, like the land which she loves, endures despite everything.

Sunset Song is a testimony to Scotland’s agricultural past, to the world of crofters and tradition destroyed in the First World War. It is a powerful description of life early in the last century through the evocation of change and its lyrical intensity of its prose.

Sandra: My memories of my first reading are that it was a wonderful read, but I found it harder going this time round. I did find the introduction slow going, it took off once you got into the story.

Rosamund: Is it better to skip the introduction?

Pauline: No, because in the end it helped place the whole story and you need the context.

Val: It’s the nearest thing to poetry that is still prose, a bit like Hardy.

Maureen: Yes, it was the poetry of the language that drew me in.

Molly: I found the speeches people made at the wedding really beautiful, the Highlander, best man, in particular. The language is so important, I grew up speaking Doric and English – sometimes I had to work hard to remember which language I was using. Sometimes, there wasn’t an English equivalent to the Doric.

Karin: So what they were fearing in the book, did happen – that the English language became predominant.

Val: It was the era coming in of elocution, suppressing the local accent, creating BBC English for all.

Karin: It was interesting that already they had to go towards using English for commercial reasons.

Linda: My edition didn’t have any translation of the Doric language.

Greta: There is a glossary in my edition where his afterword makes clear that he hopes the context reveals the meaning of the language and that the glossary is only for backup.

What do people think of the fact that he wrote it when living in Wellwyn Garden City using an assumed name to make him sound more Scots?

Carole: Perhaps it was cathartic for him to write about his homeland.

Jane: He was in love with the land and weather.

Molly: He got the teenage girl very well.

Karin: I was surprised that he was a man able to write with this insight.

Greta: He enlisted in the RAF in 1919 and in 1930 attempted to set up the Society of Militant Pacifists – he does seem to have a peculiar ambivalence about war.

Maureen: His characters refuse to fight. Euan is drawn in to question ‘why am I here’ and ends up being shot as a deserter.

Sandra: The play in Edinburgh last year was very powerful – the spoken word was so important.

Carole: Reading it as a teenager made it me realise how important books are, it took me into another world. It was the first book I read at school that made such an impression on me.

Pauline: I think the language of this is an interesting contrast to our evening group’s title, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, set in the deep south of the States.

Rosamund: Yes, I wanted to listen to both of them on audio to hear the full flavour of each accent.

Sandra: I was thinking about it in the vein of Hardy – he has very powerful women too, and his stories are also affected by external events, the foreboding to doom to come.

Val: Perhaps he could be described as DH Lawrence meets Hardy!

Molly: I can’t imagine being asked to read it at school, in my day it would have been considered too explicit.

Greta: The change in the landscape, when the woods were chopped down, was very powerful – the land was ravaged, it was amazing to think of that painful change.

Sandra: Chris’s spirit stops the story being depressing, she carries you through, how she manages against the odds. Her drive was to ensure the family’s survival.

Greta: Her marriage was also to the land – she couldn’t leave it to go to college, it would have been like a divorce.

The Book Group meets at the Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells on Wednesday September 14 at 11am. We are reading An Education by Lynn Barber and Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs (she thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse) by Paul Carter. Paul Carter will be speaking at Mainstreet on Thursday, September 29. For more information about Book Group please email info@mainstreetbooks.co.uk.